Those of you who have been reading my blog over the past few years may remember that my mom died two years ago – May 22, 2006 from Alzheimer’s. The summer before she died she spent a lot of her time outside in the garden creating little portraits of nature. She would line up seed pods, pine needles, dried-up flower heads. She would organize twigs, dirt clods, and flower petals. Very little escaped her artistic eye. Two pieces of milky white glass became juxtaposed with a wood chip; a row of tiny rocks stretched for two and a half feet in the coarse red soil. Shriveling succulent leaves were lined-up like soldiers along the edge of the walkway.
Unfortunately, Mom’s seemingly endless organizing of objects annoyed us quite a bit. She would crouch in the hot Sacramento sun, refusing to eat, drink, go to the bathroom, wear a hat or do any of the sensible things that we asked of her. She would spread out her plant fragments across tables where we needed to sit and eat and become angry with us when we swept them into a box to clean up.
Thankfully, by chance or luck, I saw something beautiful in what she was doing, and I started to photograph her little designs whenever I could. I was at her house almost every weekend that summer, and I was always excited to see what she had created while I was gone. Sometimes her artwork was easily spotted near the front door or in the middle of a lawn chair. Other times I had to go a little further into the garden – beneath the peach tree, in the wet dirt, or near a favorite plant – to find them. I tried not to let her see me taking pictures; I’d wait until she went into the house or took a nap, and then I’d run around to all the spots I’d seen and take pictures as fast as I could before she came outside again.
I felt sneaky and excited about what I was capturing, but I never felt that it would end, that she would stop making them. Of course she eventually did, and I forgot about the pictures as her condition worsened and we had to concern ourselves with doing things to keep her alive, like coaxing her to take a few sips of water or a few bites of pudding.
She would sleep in the lounge chair in the dining room, and I, exhausted but afraid to leave her alone in case she woke up and needed me, would sleep on the carpeted floor with a balled-up sweatshirt as a pillow. Sometimes I would wake up and see her awake too, and watching me. And she would smile, and I would remind her of who I was.
Last Christmas I finally took all the pictures I had taken and organized them and made a movie of them using iMovie. There were over a hundred images, so the process was a bit daunting. But going through them made me feel close to her again. I worked on fade-ins and fade-outs and scan and pan settings. This was my first time using iMovie, so I made a lot of mistakes as I worked to get things just right. I added just the right music and burned the movie on cds for my sisters, dad, and aunts. We watched it together at Christmas on my dad’s super big TV.
I don’t know what kind of reaction I expected from my dad, but I didn’t anticipate how emotional he became. I felt bad that I had brought up all these feelings again and I hugged him and apologized. But he told me that he was grateful. He had never realized that I was photographing these things and he said that he never saw them as art, the way I had. It made him sad to realize that he hadn’t appreciated what my mom was doing that summer. But how could he? He was just trying to cope with her illness and keep her healthy for as long as he could.
If you’d like to see the movie, just click on link below and it will open in a new window. The movie is just over fourteen minutes long and can take quite a while to load, so go get a cup of coffee or a glass of wine while you wait. The first time I tried to play it over the Internet I thought it wasn’t working and almost gave up. I started doing some drawing and suddenly I heard the first song start to play, and there was the movie, playing on my computer.
I hadn’t watched the film since December, and even though I watched it at least fifty times as I put it together, I still find it difficult to watch without hurting inside a little bit. Of course I still miss my mom a lot. But some days go by when I don’t, and I try not to let myself feel bad about that.
The reason why I wanted to share this movie I made with all of you is because so many of us have parents, brothers, sisters with this awful illness of Alzheimer’s. Maybe one of them is creating something beautiful and you can’t see it through your sadness and despair and the day to day struggle to survive. We get so busy taking care of this person we love who is disappearing before us, that we forget to see the little joys that might just be found in some tiny thing that person is doing and that we discount because of his or her illness.
In the little cd booklet I made to go along with this movie, I wrote: . . . Mom’s love of nature and her artistic impulses outlasted most of her other memories, even her memory of me. I believe that these portraits of small, fragile, often overlooked fragments of nature were her last great gifts to us. I want to share those gifts with whoever is willing to accept them.
“Dante’s Prayer” by Loreena McKennitt
“Watermark” by Enya
“Breathe Me” by Sia