Sunflowers for Joan

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.

56 thoughts on “Sunflowers for Joan

  1. I grieve with you for the loss of your mother-in-law’s memory. You are so kind and loving. What could be more helpful than bringing Joan flowers to look at and patience to explain things over and over? Meanwhile, we bloggers will also benefit from your gorgeous flowers. Thank you for them.

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    • Thank you Anne. Thanks for reading and for your kind comments. I’ve been at a loss as to know what to do for the best. When I calmed down, I just decided to carry on with the flowers. Now they will include lots of herbs like rosemary and lavender, anything to stimulate the memory. I’m sure they make a difference. Thanks again x

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  2. I felt very sad when reading your post, Karen. Such a difficult time for you and so hard to deal with what’s happening to your beloved mother-in-law. You are doing the best you can and in the process, adding colour and beauty to the lives of others. The photo third from the end is so amazing, like a painting.

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    • Thank you Jane. Thanks for reading and for your kind comments. All will be well, we are all doing our best to ensure Joan is surrounded with love. She did the chapel flowers for 65 years. Maybe with a bit of help, she could do some flower arranging at the home. I’m going to try. Thanks again x

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  3. So sorry to hear things have got harder. I have a special spot for sunflowers. If anything can bring some sunshine, they can. Joan is so lucky to have a family like that – speaks volumes about her as a person.

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    • Thank you. Yes, she’s a wonderful mother and grandmother. Someone I’ve always respected and loved. She’s been wonderful to me over the years. Always arriving at our house with a cake for tea. Always getting stuck in to any jobs needing doing- peeling the veg, bringing the washing in, reading with the children. Her only thought was to help. Now it’s my turn to help her as she faces all the challenges of illness. Thanks again for reading and keeping me company xx

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  4. I feel like singing ‘All we need is Love’…and your mother in law has this in abundance. Giving out love does not diminish the giver either. You are also a good example to the next generation below you too. Maybe the nursing home will allow you to hold a little workshop on planting the seeds, and looking after them in a little garden. Gardening if one is able is very good therapy….even if it is just watering plants with a helper. The sunflowers are magnificent.

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    • Thank you Noelle. So true. For a while the grief sapped all my energy. Now I’m powering back to looking for the positives. The care home has a fabulous garden and a greenhouse. There’s a group of volunteers and I’ve already tentatively offered to join in. I have a plan. Thanks for reading and for your kind comments. Much appreciated.

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  5. Really an eloquent and moving post Karen. Your mother-in-law is so fortunate to have a large, loving family, and especially a daughter-in-law who exemplifies the qualities and values she lived by: kindness, determination + resourcefulness… I have some understanding of how painful that loss is though, as my mother had progresively worsening dementia for her last 20 years or so. We were fortunate however, in that although she forgot most people she still recognized my brother and I. Even though your mother-in-law’s memory has lapsed, you must be such a source of love and continuity for her, still… Thinking of you + sending warmest wishes… XX

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    • Thank you Mike. The calendulas are going strong in my garden. I sowed a second row in July and I’m hoping they keep going for another few weeks. Thanks for your kind words. Much appreciated. Enjoy your week x

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  6. This is a beautiful post, though leaves me teary. Anything I say seems trivial but I’m wishing you well and hoping you find the strength. The fact that my Dad is forgetting things and is having tests makes it harder to read. He got lost last week which was a wake up call for my Mum and I. Hoping you find the way forward with plants and flowers, which always help. x

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    • Thank you Alison. I couldn’t find the words until this week to be honest. It seemed so overwhelming. But today I feel like I’m putting one foot in front of the other and focusing on doing what I can to make a difference. And there’s lots that can be done. There are so many medical reasons why we struggle with our memory. Early diagnosis makes all the difference. Make sure your GP does every possible test. Thinking of you, and your Mum and Dad. x

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  7. You will always be so much more than ‘the girl with the flowers’ and the time will come when you will be able to celebrate the wonderful relationship you shared with Joan, which she will have enjoyed in the same way that you have but can no longer remember. No-one can ever take those shared years away from either of you although it might not look that way at the moment. Such an honest and poignant post from such a caring person. Take care Karen xx

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    • Thank you Cathy. I hadn’t thought of that! It’s so true. No one can take the happy times away. I just wish she could have the comfort of those memories as she grows older. But I’m determined that if she’s living in the “now” it will be a happy place to be. Thanks again. And what would I have done without IAVOM all these years, and especially now. I bet you didn’t realise how valuable your meme would be to so many different people with such varied life experiences. I feel like it’s a support network of friends.

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  8. Such a sad post. All the best to you and your family Karen. Joan has lost all recollection of your treasured time together, but you can remember and treasure your memories for the both of you.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you Cathy. That’s so true and I hadn’t thought of that! And maybe I can keep reminding her, although that just causes confusion at the moment, followed by many questions along the lines of “why can’t I remember that.” I do treasure the memories. It’s been a desperately sad, unhappy time, but I’m now looking to what positive and cheerful things I can do to to help. I’m on a mission 🙂 xx 😊

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  9. This is a sad but simultaneously beautiful story of love, kindness, and devotion, Karen. Alzheimer’s is a cruel condition but I think your approach of finding light in the moment is the right one. (((Hug)))

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  10. I’m so sorry that Joan and her loving family are experiencing the effects of this horrible disease. May your many fond memories help sustain you through this time. How wonderful that you both can still enjoy the beautiful flowers. Sending you love and strength.

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    • Thank you Peter. I’m finding that the support of my friends and family is helping us all to keep focused on the future and doing our best each day. Thanks for your kind words, which are much appreciated. All the best. Karen

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  11. Karen you have not lost your dear mother-in-law, Joan. All the years that you spent together in family problems, in the birth of your daughters and your nephew, in birthday parties, in the good times of families, in everything that you have asked and she has helped you, and in an endless number of other things, that nobody can take it from you, nobody. Joan has not disappeared from your life, it is in your life. Since Joan lost her memory for Alzheimer’s, Joan is in her life, in her memories. You have cared for years with all your love with your family, taking bouquets every week. For the caregiver this disease is very hard and takes its toll. But as you said at the beginning you are strong and I do not want you to stop being. Now Joan is with her husband in a Care Home, which is why he is very beautiful. You have signed up for the Volunteer of the Greenhouse! You will continue to bring flowers every week, not only for your room but for almost all the Home of care. Karen you have a big heart and very good. Sunflowers are beautiful, divine, I love them and they carry the gift of your love for Joan. Karen, you are a treasure. Do not ever change. How is your dear relative and how are you? I hope that going to the Hospitar to see you will not rot you inside and you have assimilated it. And take him a lot of love and joy and strength. Take care. Love and Health Very loving greetings from Margarita.

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    • Thank you. Your kind comments are much appreciated. It’s good to have so much team spirit within the family. I feel really lucky we are all working together to help. Thanks again for reading the blog.

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