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Finding the Sweet in Bitter
Anne Anthony

While raising six children, my mother read voraciously, losing herself to different worlds, those without a kitchen sink stacked with dirty dishes, laundry baskets piled high with clothes, or toys scattered across every room. In the evenings, she had ‘her nose in a book,’  as my father would say, after she finished grading papers, lesson planning, or helping us with homework. As a teacher and, by example, she manifested the love of reading.

Imagine then, in her early seventies, the sudden tilt of her world when her memory began to change. First, she switched from reading novels to collections of short stories, telling me,  “I can remember the plot of a short story long enough to finish.” Near the end of her life, when she could no longer recall the narrative thread, she lost the joy of reading.

After her death, when I repeated how my mother’s memory changes robbed her of her love of reading, finally recognizing their entanglement. Charles de Lint writes about “moments of synchronicity…,” when we hear “the whispered voice, the hidden presence, when we think we’re alone.”[i]

The idea to create an anthology of flash fiction for lifelong readers experiencing memory changes slowly emerged. Had I published an anthology before? No. Did I appreciate the amount of work ahead? Absolutely not. Did I channel Mickey Rooney playing the character Andy Hardy, shouting, ‘C’mon, kids, let’s put on a show?” I sure did.

I ignored what I didn’t know, holding to the certainty that my mother would have enjoyed reading flash fiction, perhaps extending her reading life by providing a narrative in which the story ended while the reader could still remember how it began.

~

“Whatever pain you can’t get rid of,” Susan Cain writes in  Bittersweet, How Sorrow and Longing Make Us Whole, “make it your creative offering.”[ii] The flurry of activity involved in creating an anthology — calls for submissions, reviewing, selecting, editing, formatting and designing, marketing and promoting — distracted me from the sorrow of losing my mother.

Grief is unpredictable, refusing to take a linear course. At the time, I was confident that my own grief would end once the anthology was published, honoring my mother’s life and serving as a testament to my love. Instead, what I thought was an end was just the beginning.

~

Before the launch, I asked the writers and photographers to participate in a Contributor Spotlight feature, detailing their reasons for submitting. Though I hadn’t required the artists to include memory loss experiences, the details they shared connected us in ways I never expected. One writer described how, when she ran out of real-life stories during visits, she’d read poems and discuss them. Her mother would smile, laugh, nod her head, or pat her arm, enjoying the shared connection of storytelling. How closely her experience reflected my own:  In her final year, my mother would forget an idea mid-thought, so I spun stories from her life, building bridges over the gaps in her memory.

Reading aloud is often the first experience of feeling connected to our parents, getting tucked into bed, and waiting, sometimes impatiently, for the story to begin. Their voices carried us to faraway lands filled with fiery dragons, noble knights, and brave princesses. A connective melody between two people, storytelling bonds in powerful and long-lasting ways, reinforcing empathy, resilience, and wisdom.

Another writer explained she became the caretaker of her older sister, diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s. She saw the submission’s call as a chance to honor her sister, who, like my mother, loved books, adding that good writing “...seems a holy thing, a good book and the way it can make you feel. It’s daunting to try...but it’s such a glorious thing when you get close.”

One writer explained she and her mother had been coping with her grandma’s Alzheimer’s for six years, writing “I wanted to be a part of it, for her, for who she used to be.” Shortly after the publication, she sent me a photograph of her reading her first published story to her grandmother.

From these email exchanges, a dawning emerged, something I hadn’t recognized or, perhaps, admitted to myself. Mourning began long before my mother left my life; no, as her memory changed, I permanently lost fragments of her. I hadn’t let myself feel that void until confronted with the personal stories of the anthology contributors. Even as I allowed my grief to surface, I continued to believe, as Susan Cain so aptly states, the labor of love embodied by the anthology was “the quest to transform pain into beauty...one of the great catalysts of artistic expression.”[iii] Clinging to this belief, I continued to avoid embracing my mother’s absence. 

~

I arranged for local writers to read at the assisted living facility where my mother once lived, and where my sister, Mary, who struggles with physical disabilities, lives still. As she was unable to attend our mother’s out-of-state funeral mass, we hosted a memorial service at the facility. Mary shared her feelings of loss with the friends we invited. My sister expressed her grief without hesitation; I envied how easily it poured from her. We ended the celebration by singing Goodnight Irene, my mother’s name.

~

A month later, I was invited as the featured poet for a monthly reading series. In his introduction, the event host, familiar with the anthology, spoke about his experiences with his late mother and his current struggle with his brother-in-law living with Alzheimer’s. He called the book’s writing a ‘mitzvah,’ a term I later learned meant  ‘a good deed.’

My perspective of the project changed when he framed it as such. Over the following weeks, as I attended book fairs and conferences to promote the anthology, I watched potential buyers approach, nodding as they discovered the book’s purpose, and soon sharing their experiences with mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, and spouses transformed by memory changes. The book itself manifested the opportunity for people to discuss loss. Facilitating connection, yes, that was a good deed. 

But as one reading followed another, it became increasingly difficult for me to speak. The chasm of loss I tried to fill with activity grew wider. With each reading, I felt sadness more keenly until I finally called it to a halt. 

At the final reading, I asked a contributor to serve as host since she’d requested to hold this one at her hometown bookstore, Scuppernong Books, in Greensboro, North Carolina. The idea of standing before another audience and sharing my sadness paralyzed me. Would this be the reading where I broke down and wept, unable to continue? Shortly afterward, the writer’s father’s health declined rapidly, and he passed away. Giving her the spotlight in front of her family and friends had been the right call for us both.

~

Each conversation, each email, each time I stood before another audience tattered the fabric of the wall holding back the truth — my mother left me. But what I couldn’t face, couldn’t admit in this lovefest honoring my mother was that I’d left my mother first.

In the three years after my father’s passing, those years she lived near me, I found her challenging: erratic mood swings,  multiple falls, the subsequent emergency room visits and weeks-long hospitalizations. Six months before my mother died, it was my turn in the emergency room, where I was admitted for high blood pressure caused by the stress of managing the lives of my mother and sister.

Only then did I admit I needed help.

As a girl, I modeled myself after my mother. She was wicked funny and someone who gave entirely of herself. In my eyes, she was part angel, part martyr, and I imprinted on her example. Consistently smoothing over upset, she made nice like women of her era so often did, without acknowledging that giving yourself wholly over to others can breed disappointment and bitterness. And despite her generosity, she’d never accept help from others; her refrain, “I don’t want to be beholden,” led me to believe that accepting help meant she owed the gift-giver some part of herself.

I never questioned my mother’s tendency to give to others while refusing to receive. But like her, I focused on everyone’s feelings except my own, attending to everything and everyone while denying the collapse of my own heart.

My eldest brother lived in our hometown, an eight-hour drive away, where my siblings and I would eventually bury our mother next to our father. After I was released from the hospital, he agreed to find her a local memory care facility. Two weeks later, my mother was driven there, accompanied by my younger brother, and I kissed her farewell, not forever but for a while.

Three months later, a family wedding provided an opportunity to visit her in the new facility. She seemed frailer than I remembered, and started crying when she saw me and my youngest daughter.

“My family,” she said.

Our time together was shorter than I would have liked, but I promised to visit again soon. Three months later – three years to the day my father died – my eldest brother called to say she passed in her sleep. 

~

Grief spins tendrils of second guesses. Was it selfish to send my mother back home? Did that speed her demise? Should I have checked with the memory care facility and not relied on my brother’s questionable vigilance, knowing he’d miss the subtle changes.

A singular thought — he should’ve known — kept me awake, hounding me, and erupted in unexpected anger as I searched for something or someone to blame. What power of prediction I fixed upon him, a man who had no keener insight into my mother dying than I had the night before our father died? Dad had flirted with the nurse while I waited for her to take his vital signs, and believing he’d turned the corner left to return home. Neither of us could divine the hour our parents would leave.

~

Due to the complexity of her care, my sister still lives in the assisted living community, her life not what she expected. My relationship with Mary began to flourish soon after our mother moved back home, when I finally,  fully appreciated how much our mother leaned on her, someone who also required care. Consumed by chronic pain from eroding joints; she also developed a bleeding disorder that ravages her shoulders and arms with piercing, agonizing bruises. Most nights, I pray she finds comfort, even if it means losing her. She is my big sister, my one-time rival for our parents’ love, my cross-to-bear, and most importantly, my family.

Second guessing is exhausting and leaves little energy for the living — my husband, daughters, and friends—those who held steady when I felt most unsteady. Moving forward requires ending the backward glances, the hunt for regrets. Instead, I seek comfort in the memory of happier days, moments that tie the sweet to the bitter.

I often return to an afternoon spent with my mother, who called out for her own. 

“Oh, Mother, oh, Mother,” she said, a refrain with no chorus.

On this particular day, I asked her, “You miss your mother, don’t you?” 

She quietly thought over my question, and finally said, “Yes, I do.” 

I told her I missed my mother too. She reached over and squeezed my hand to comfort me, unaware the mother I missed was her.

I find solace imagining a different scenario of that same afternoon, one in which I reach for the anthology from her bookcase, glance at my mother and ask, “Would you like me to read you a story?”

 

[i] de Lint, Charles. “Frequently Asked Questions.” Charles de Lint, 2006 – 2021. www.charlesdelint.com/faq01.htm#magic.

[ii] Skipper, Clay. “Susan Cain Wants You to Stop Being So Positive and Start Thinking About Death.” GQ, April 20, 2022. www.gq.com/story/susain-cain-bittersweet-interview.

[iii] Cain, Susan. “Is There an Inherent Connection Between Sadness and Art-Making?”. Literary Hub. April 7, 2022. https://lithub.com/is-there-an-inherent-connection-between-sadness-and-art-making/.

 

Anne Anthony credits her steady diet of comic books for her ardent belief in superpowers. She has most recently been published in Flash Boulevard, Flash Fiction Magazine, Levitate Magazine, and elsewhere. Her micro-fiction, It’s a Mother Thing, was nominated for Best Microfiction 2024 by Cleaver Magazine. She is a senior editor and art director for the literary journal Does It Have Pockets. Find more of her writing here: https://linktr.ee/anchalastudio.

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