Before we could read, most of us were read to. And we loved it. Just as we still love “story time;” even if it’s sitting with someone at or after work, listening to stories. We still love it.
Somewhere along the line we learned that reading was something serious that we did by ourselves. But it can be other things, too.
Go to a reading. Shut your eyes, sit back, listen to the author read the words he wrote.
Get the CD, or download the audio book, or watch a video, of me reading most of the poems in My Father, Humming. Let me do all the work of making it make sense. All you have to do is listen.
Come, if you can, hear me read from My Father, Humming. Sit in a room with a group of other people, and listen. I am telling you a story—my story about my father’s decline with Alzheimer’s, and how I learned to deal with his death. But I’m also telling your story.
My words are talking to each of you, individually; they are also talking to all of you—about what we have in common, what we share as human beings. What better than to do that together, to be part of the community in that room. To be reaffirmed by all that peace and love and positivity, in the aftermath of losing a loved one.
We are all stronger—happier and more peaceful, even free—if we face the hardest things in life together. We don’t have to feel alone.
Having someone close to you with Alzheimer’s is a crisis. You can ignore it—but you can also take this opportunity and deal with it.
The first thing to do is to admit what is happening: that this person has Alzheimer’s disease, and is disappearing.
Admit how you feel about that.
Admit how you feel about them: if you are angry, what are you angry about?
If you feel guilty for feeling angry, admit that too.
Admit how you feel about others in relation to this person—if they’re making you do all the work in caring for this person with Alzheimer’s, if they’re helping, or not.
Next, address this.
Figure out your feelings, as best you can, toward the person who’s declining in health. And, to the extent that you can, address these—with the person, if possible. You might not be able to, or they might not—physically or psychologically—be able to hear. Progress might be slow, and it might not happen. But it’s almost impossible once they are dead, so keep trying it, even if it’s only in conversations with yourself.
The same with other loved ones. If you are angry, let them know—whatever you are feeling. And why. Not done angrily, but as in, “I can’t do this myself. I need some help.”
Do what you can.
And then, let go. Not everyone can change. No one can change the past. Maybe you can get someone to apologize for something hurtful they did, but they might not even be able to do that.
You’ve done what you can. Don’t hold on to it. That doesn’t hurt anyone but you. Letting go provides relief.
The alternative is holding on. That only makes you feel bad, bogs you down with all that weight.
Let go of being in control, being able to control.
Not everything is going to be the way you want it, or think it should be.
Let go of that.
And, finally, accept. You’ve done what you could. Maybe they can’t do what you want.
Maybe they will never be able.
Accept how things are.
Do you still love them, despite the hurt and anger?
Accept that. Accept them.
If you can do that, an enormous weight will be lifted off you. You will feel lighter, more peaceful, perhaps comforted.
What started off as something awful and unthinkable will become positive and healing.
To quote the Amazon reviewer again, “Gillman’s poems show us that, if we can manage to stay emotionally present, the demise of a loved one paradoxically offers a unique and gratifying opportunity for intimacy and connection.”
Death doesn’t care who you are, where you live, what you look like, how much money you have. It’s an equal opportunity destroyer—it’s going to get us all in the end.
My Father, Humming is about life, and about death. It appeals to everyone: urban teenagers as well as suburban ones, thinking about their grandparents with Alzheimer’s; young adults in their twenties too.
For adults in their 30s, 40s, 50s, it’s more about their parents having Alzheimer’s, their aunts and uncles. For older adults, it’s about their spouses, their siblings, their friends.
People everywhere relate to the book—on the island of Maui; on the island of Jamaica; in Nigeria; in Hartford (the fourth poorest city in the country); in Simsbury, Connecticut (a wealthy suburb); in Los Angeles; New York; Baltimore; Washington; Minneapolis; Lincoln, Nebraska.
Everyone needs bereavement help. Everyone needs support when dealing with the death of a friend or family member. Losing a loved one will happen to everyone.
Everywhere, there are people who know other people with Alzheimer’s, or who have lost a loved one to something out of their control. This book speaks to them.
Having someone close to you develop dementia or Alzheimer’s is a slap in the face. It’s not something you planned for, or expected.
If it’s a spouse—well, yes, we agreed to “in sickness or in health”—but we thought that meant a cold, maybe the flu, even a broken bone. But not like that. That’s not the person we married.
And what about a parent getting Alzheimer’s? No one told us it’d be like this. Our own children, when they were babies—sure, we knew that’s what babies were—we did sign up for that. But our parents being babies, before our eyes … that is something unimaginable, entirely.
They did that for us, didn’t they, just the way we did it for our children?
No one told us we’d have to do it for them too. Did they?
We don’t expect to have to cope with grief. I know I certainly didn’t anticipate writing memorial poems about my father; even while he was alive, no one prepared me for emotional toll that dementia takes on a parent.
Taking care of someone with Alzheimer’s is very challenging. It makes the caretaker feel alone and isolated, without a life of their own. Often, in couples, it kills the caretaker as well—and sometimes the caretaker dies first.
It certainly took a toll on my mother. In my father’s last year, they had in-home care. The relief for my mother was obvious; for the next three years she seemed to get younger and younger—she was getting herself and her life back. With the extra help, I imagine that she could begin to focus on her own steps of the grief and mourning process. She could still hold on to my father, her husband, and all she knew him to be while accepting his Alzheimer’s and what was left to come.
Losing a loved one is always hard.
What do they say? That it takes two years to get over that? Sometimes it takes a lot longer.
But the way a person passes has an effect, too.
My uncle had a stroke. Four days later he was dead.
It was much too sudden—one moment he was fully alive, and then he was gone. But he didn’t suffer; and there was a quick finality to it.
My other uncle starved himself—his choice. It wasn’t more than two weeks between when he started and when he died. Not long, but long enough for me to say good-bye.
Something lingering is more difficult. There are so many ups and downs, so many hopes and discouragements.
Someone declining with dementia or Alzheimer’s is particularly difficult. The person is there but not there, and sometimes they are almost as they were. You are losing them, mourning them, bereaving them a little every day—and sometimes it goes on for years.
That’s a long time to grieve. Sometimes you’re going to get angry at the person, especially if you’re the one being the caretaker. It’s as if your life has to be put on hold, to take care of this other person. Yes, you love them, but you can’t do this alone. And, you sometimes wonder, why is it taking so long? And to what end? Is there such thing a as a healthy grieving process?
Music. Music runs through all of My Father, Humming. It ties everything together.
I think of the book as one poem, which is, in itself, a piece of music.
Poets and writers deal with words. Music is what comes before words. We all listen to music of one kind of another. It connects us to something deeper in ourselves, something more basic and lasting.
Music connects us directly to the “chi”—to our spirits, our souls.
The vibration of a string—on a piano, a violin, a guitar—aligns with our heartbeat, and with the blood moving in our veins. The changed air produced by a wind instrument is the music of breath.
Music is life. We don’t have to figure out what it means. We listen to it, or make it, and we are inside of it. And in it, we connect to the universe, and to ourselves.
My Father, Humming is a piece of music about Alzheimer’s, losing a loved one, as well as love and healing.
“Poetry? My Father, Humming is poetry? The way you talked about it, it sounded interesting. But I’m not going to read it if it’s poetry. I don’t read poetry.”
Lots of people feel that way. When we were taught poetry in school, the teacher would have us all read some poem that she loved that was, like, 100 years old. It was written in some stilted language no one we knew used, with lots of words we didn’t understand. She gushed over its meaning and how beautiful it was, and we didn’t get it. Then she had us read another one, and we didn’t get that one either. And because we didn’t understand, that made us feel stupid. Why should we try something that made us feel bad?
Later, if someone had a poem that was new that they liked and they showed it to us, we didn’t get that at all. It made our head hurt to try to understand it, and still we didn’t get it.
Clearly, poetry made us feel stupid. It wasn’t for us.
Well, poetry doesn’t have to be like that. Right now, there’s poetry we all know and like. Popular music—the songs we listen to over and over—even rap—they’re poetry, too.
“No. Really? Come on.”
So are nursery rhymes. I call them “people’s poetry.”
My Father, Humming is like that. It is poetry about Alzheimer’s, and “so accessible,” as several people have said. Meaning: even if you don’t read poetry, if you can read, you can read this—and if you do read poetry, you can read this, too. There are serious verses, as well as humorous ones; all of them, though, are tributes to the deceased, and losing someone to Alzheimer’s.
There it is, dealing with things all of us have faced or will face—one Amazon customer review said, “This is a book for anyone who has lost someone.”
And doing it in a way all of us can understand.
For the longest time, my father fought the idea of getting older—of not being the man he had been. Even as he was clearly declining with Alzheimer’s, he kept insisting that if he ate certain vitamins, did other things, he would be an exception.
Somewhere in his physical decline, when there were so many things he could no longer do, when he had to accept the indignity of wearing a diaper and having someone else change him—to see, and to know, what he was no longer capable of—he let go of his notions of immortality: death was going to happen to him, too.
And when he became accepting of that aspect of himself, he became much more accepting of others. Even with dementia, he was kinder and gentler, a nicer person to be around. He began to accept what he could not control.
Many of us go through life trying to control things. In reality, there is not a lot we can control. Maybe we have some control over the small details, but not the big picture. We certainly don’t have control when someone gets Alzheimer’s disease, or when it is time to say goodbye to a loved one.
We are all going to die. We can live as well as we can, but we can’t change, or control, our own mortality.
We can’t do much when a loved one starts declining with something like Alzheimer’s or dementia.
If we keep trying to control what we can’t, we get frustrated. Nothing turns out the way we want it to.
A lot of the grieving process that led to the writing of My Father, Humming, was, for me, about letting go of control. Just as I can’t change the direction the wind is blowing, or make it blow more, or less, there was little I could do about the state my father was in, or about his decline with Alzheimer’s.
The one thing I could do was to accept that—to let go of trying to control it. Really doing that brings a lot of freedom with it, a lot of calmness and ease—even peace. Sometimes, it can even feel spiritual. If we accept what we cannot change, we can enjoy the moments along the way. Being with the person while they are sleeping, having my father still recognize me even with dementia, having his hand search in the air for mine; these are all things I will remember. Because of these moments, I can come to peace with it.
What I came to from the process of letting go, what I feel I have put into the book, and what other people seem to get from it, is that sense of peace, and of peacefulness about losing a loved one.
I accepted this about my father. I have also accepted that it’s going to happen to me, one way or the other, and it may be in this way. I don’t want it to be; I hope it’s not, and hope it’s not for a while. I’m going to do what I can in that regard. But I think I have also accepted that it will happen how it will happen. And about that I feel peace—peacefulness—serenity. And I hope others feel that from the book too. These stories illustrated by these poems can be sad, but I hope they can also be uplifting to read when remembering and honoring a loved one.