I’m glad I planted sunflowers on every spare inch of ground this summer. Somehow, I must have known we would need them.
When my mother-in-law Joan was diagnosed with Alzheimers a few years ago, I started a cut flower garden. Each week I’d run round picking twigs from shrubs and flowers from the patch, anything to give her an idea of what my garden looked like- and keep her connected to me.
In my heart, I knew that one day I would simply be, the girl who brings flowers.
Nothing could have prepared me for the heartbreak when that moment arrived. It was literally overnight. One minute, I was her Karen, married to her son for 30 years. Mum to her two granddaughters. With all our shared memories of the ups and downs of family life; illnesses overcome, failures commiserated, success celebrated. The pain and triumphs of ordinary family life. A life shared. And the next, I was just someone. Someone who brought flowers.
The sense of loss is overwhelming. I’m standing on their front doorstep, flowers in my hand, and she doesn’t really know who I am. I have to remind myself to breathe. I’m literally holding my breath, hoping I’m wrong.
I stay overnight – we’ve all been taking it it turns. I’m part of a large and very supportive family. Everyone has stepped in over the past few years to help out. No one could have done more. Next morning, I find Joan standing by my bed. “Tell me who you are, and who am I to you?” she asks. I try not to cry. It wouldn’t help. I say we’ll have tea and toast and over breakfast I’ll explain everything. I can’t face the task without a cup of tea. Simple things. One step at a time. We have a really lovely breakfast together. There’s hand embroidered table cloths and pretty china cups. Joan tells me she loves honey because her father kept bees at the bottom of the garden when she was little. I didn’t know that. She likes honey every day because it reminds her of him. After breakfast I get out the family photo album and explain who everyone is. She’s delighted to have such a large happy family. Joan was an only child and always wanted a big family. Her three children have produced five grandchildren and one great grandson. And she’s always been very close to all of them. And yet. On this day. She can’t remember any of them. Only her father who she says is upstairs. Did I know he was there, she asks? I gently explain he’s been dead a long time. Five minutes later, we are still taking about her Dad. I can’t face telling her again that he’s not here. Joan seems to be going back in time. A parallel universe. I’m going forward, she’s going back. Only when we talk about flowers are we in the same world. The sunflowers look so cheerful, she says. It’s the only thing we can both agree on.
The cruelty of the illness is that it is like a bereavement. I’ve “lost” someone who always backed me up. Someone I could always turn to for help and support. A recipe, a knitting pattern. A costume for my daughter when she came home from school and cheerfully announced she needed a reindeer outfit for the play- the next day. Joan had a brown zip up suit she’d made for her son when he was eight. She’s kept it safe, and could put her hand on it straight away. How I love her resourcefulness. Make do and mend. Help everyone if you can. Nothing wasted. A lesson in life for all of us.
Now Joan needs our help and support and love. And luckily there are a lot of us willing and able to give it. The family have been amazing. But this blog is just about my thoughts and feelings and how I face challenges in life. And so I only mention what I am doing. Their stories are their own to speak about. But I want to make clear that everyone has played their part and been unstinting in their help.
I’m not the kind of person to be defeated by anything. So I have a new challenge now. My cut flower bouquets will fill the window ledges of the care home Joan’s just moved to. She’s there with her wonderful husband of 65 years. There will be flowers for the dining room tables, and flowers for the reception hall. I’ve sowed hardy annual seeds. Larkspur, calendula, love-in-a-mist, cornflowers. And I’ve ordered my sunflower seed for next spring.
I read somewhere about living in the “now” and creating moments of joy. My beloved Joan has a life made up of lots of moments of joy. We are all helping her find reasons to smile. And who can fail to smile when they see a sunflower.
Thank you to Cathy and everyone from IAVOM who have supported me these last few years when I’ve posted my posies for Joan. And for all the kind messages these past few weeks. They have been much appreciated.
For more information look on the Alzheimers Society website Here
These sunflowers were grown from Mr Fothergills All Sorts Mix. Click on the link to see the varieties. Sown in March in a propagator. Pricked out in April and planted out the first week of June. They’ve been providing multi-headed flowers all summer long.