Winter Solstice is a beautiful and heartbreaking poetic account of the end of life journey of the author’s mother, who was losing her memory. This made my heart ache because I went through this with my Dad as well, and watched him eventually forget us due to Dementia. It is a tough thing to experience, but Diana Howard writes about this sad journey with honesty, truth, and compassion.
Some of the poems in this collection compare this condition to nature and the winter season, and some are very matter-of-fact accounts of the effects of this disease. All of them will speak to somebody who has been affected by this in one way or another.
Anyone who has lost a loved one to Alzheimer’s or Dementia will identify with this heartfelt and very candid poetic account of a long and agonizing loss of a parent.
I received a free copy of this book from the publishers via Netgalley. My review is voluntary.
Q&A WITH DIANA HOWARD (With a bonus poem from the author!)
Winter Solstice was of course inspired by your Mother’s battle with dementia. I also lost a parent and grandparent to dementia and I want to express my deepest condolences. Was it difficult to write about or did writing help you process it all?
I think what was difficult was watching and experiencing my mother’s decline yet having very little understanding (especially early on) of what was happening to her and what she could and could not comprehend. Of course, every day was different, but I felt desperately sad for her and powerless to help her. Writing about it was comforting for me and it helped me personalize it in a way that gave her as much dignity and peace as was possible.
In some of your poems in this book, such as Winter Solstice, Taking Refuge, and Losing Memory, you related your mother’s dementia to nature, specifically the winter season. It is actually a perfect analogy. How were you first inspired to relate your mother’s passing to nature in this way?
Growing up, nature was a large part of my experiences with my parents. Hunting for morel mushrooms every spring with my dad, and looking for bittersweet in the woods with my mom in the fall. We went camping every summer and played outdoors always. I grew to love the sound of birds and also the wisdom they presented through a pair of binoculars. By the time I started writing seriously, in my late 30’s, nature seemed the perfect metaphor for so many things.
Were you writing these poems as everything was happening in real time or from memory later?
The answer to this question is both. “Departure” for example was written on a plane flying home from seeing my mom a year before she died. (I lived 10 hours away) “Taking Refuge” was written when I traveled to see my mom when she still lived in her own home but was hospitalized with abdominal issues. I could see while she was in the hospital and out of her normal familiar setting, that she was struggling more than I realized. It was still another year before we actually moved her into assisted care.
Let’s talk about the grief process. For myself, I found I was already grieving my Dad when he began to forget me. I realized after his death I was already very far along in the grief process. How has the process evolved for you?
Pretty much as you describe. I was the oldest daughter, the one designated to care for her. Even though I couldn’t do that physically because i was so far away, i definitely did it emotionally, until she could no longer comprehend, and then I still did it anyway. My two brothers and sister were also wonderful with her. I was lucky in that regard that they did what they could as well.
Many of the poems came out of the grief i was feeling and from the lonely powerless feeling that engulfed me so often. (Did I mention guilt??? I always left her. struggling to remind myself that I am doing the best I can and also what was right for me.
I love that you spoke of the realities of having dementia in such a forthright way. Those of us who have experienced this with loved ones will identify immediately with your words. I also think that those who are about to go through this with their loved ones will be helped by your candid description of the realities of this harsh disease. When you wrote Winter Solstice, did you realize the extent to which it could be of great help to others?
I didn’t realize it while I was going through it, but after she died I looked over volumes of pages of writing that I did and thought to myself, maybe I could help someone not feel so alone as they spend years saying goodbye to a loved one. Maybe I could help them with their sadness, their anger and frustration, their coping with the real challenges that occur.
What is the most important thing you want others to take away from your book?
I would hope that they would feel less alone knowing that others are going through the same thing. Even though everyone’s journey is a bit different, the key symptoms of the disease are the same. Here is a poem that is not in the book. I actually wrote it this past summer thinking that I might use it when giving a talk about my book – I’m sure it will resonate with you as it does with me.
I want to tell you
what not to do
how not to respond
where not to go.
I learned the hard way.
I want to say it doesn’t get easier.
It will take vicious turns
break your heart.
I learned the hard way.
I want to explain how it
preys on a sinking lucidity,
that any thought
of rescue or reasoning
will fail miserably
punishing you in your dreams.
You will learn the hard way.
In closing, I just wanted to say that your poem Losing Memory really spoke to me because it’s such a great analogy comparing the loss of memory to a blizzard, and I can sadly imagine my loved one wandering, trying to find those memories again, only to have them wiped away by bitter winds. It actually made me realize I still feel the sting of those bitter winds sometimes, almost three years after my Dad passed. Thanks for sharing your thoughts about this terrible disease with the world.
Thanks so much, Bonnie!
COMMENT FROM BONNIE
*When I did the original QA questions, I didn’t know about the extra poem the author would be so gracious to send. I wanted to comment on it. It’s absolutely true. There is no way to reason with someone with dementia/Alzheimer’s, and no way to permanently rescue them. This condition and its effects will break your heart more than once .
Again, thank you Diana, for your wonderful answers and the new poem!
MORE ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Diana Howard is a poet and children’s author living in southeastern South Dakota. She began writing for children ten years ago. Her love of nature and animals influences her storytelling as she gives both voice and character to her subject matter.
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