Book Review: Winter Solstice
Reviewed by Frank Pizzoli
Winter Solstice makes dementia’s deep hollowing out of the soul understandable.
This book is important. Poet Diana Howard takes care of her mother passing through the stages of dementia, and she reverently honors the collective journeys of all those who have done the same. This memoir-in-poetry is an ode to those who wade into what is called by many “a long goodbye.”
Current headlines give this book of poems even more relevance. In the US, Alzheimer’s and dementia deaths increased 16% during the Covid-19 pandemic. And last year, 11-million Americans provided unpaid care to those going through it.
There’s nowhere to start other than this book cover. It wonderfully captures the essence of the poetry and chosen title: a bird on a frost-covered limb, looking out on the world. The frozen water evaporates with the sun as dementia saps away the once functioning mind of a loved one. A winter solstice occurs when either of Earth’s poles reaches its maximum tilt away from the sun. This is the same as dementia forcing an individual to tilt in maximum fashion away from the familiar.
Howard’s experiences with her mother’s dementia from 2007 to 2017 are charted out in a series of poems that comprise a four-section book. Each section clearly delineates for readers—sometimes literally, sometimes figuratively—the nature of dementia’s phases.
Reading through the poems in Section 1 (2007), “Diana, I remember the important things,” Howard quickly draws you into the real world of her mother. She’s struggling to discern the difference between true and false. Dementia does that. Trust of others becomes rocky. Like winter’s snow makes everything look so cold, so feels the changing nature of a mother-daughter relationship.
Section II (2008), “Diana, I want you to take care of me…” moves readers to the next level of reality with dementia. Is it time for assisted living? In other words, how does a daughter, or how do any of us, deal with any elder, and how do we witness and manage the slow giving-up of lifetime pursuits? Driving, music, long walks, day trips are slowly, surely, dropped from routines. Howard isn’t afraid to show us her own vulnerabilities. I feel it so sharply as Howard watches her hungry mother at a buffet only able to eat certain foods.
Howard’s mother is in a wheelchair by Section III (2015), “Diana, I think I will stay here…” opens. In this time frame of their mutual journey, Howard is traveling on a train to visit her mother who no longer knows her. She talks to a man hoping to have a tumor shrink. He also writes poetry which she reads and then writes: “We both opened doors we did not know how to close.”
The author’s postscript following her poem “Ghost” unravels for readers the yearning search by those with dementia sometimes endure. She explains that:
“My mother lost my dad when he was 65 and she was 63. She lived alone until she died at the age of 93. She would get teary if Dad was ever mentioned in conversation. Sometimes she would talk to him. Her confusion broke my heart. She had lost most memories of him yet saw him in every man she met.”
Section IV is the ending we all anticipate. Few of us can actually handle it no matter the amount of time between diagnosis and death. What is especially comforting about Howard’s poetic observations is how she describes the peacefulness of a dying person’s last days. That point in the journey when the diminished are no longer concerned with their own well-being. They are now caring back for the people caring for them. All the memories have been shared.
On a page with her mother’s photograph, Howard reminds readers in a gentle, not admonishing, way what she’s learned, that “Memory, remembered or forgotten, lives on borrowed time.”
Publisher: Atmosphere Press
Genre: Poetry / Memoir
Print Length: 46 pages
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