The Brain Anchor by Valley Haggard

It’s not until I’m on 95, driving out to visit my dad, that I realize what to do with the fur hat tied by ropes to a cinder block in the trunk of my car, a “brain anchor” used as a prop by a friend in a surrealism creative writing class. My father not only introduced me to the world of surrealism when I was a child, he currently inhabits one of his own.

I’d called him the day before to ask his permission to write about him because, I tell him, there’s nothing else right now I can imagine writing about. Still, I feel like a vulture scavenging for blood. “Oh, of course you can,” he says, surprising me as he always does with his generosity. “I would be honored.” And then he suggests I write an even longer article for a national magazine, because people love to read about other people’s dying parents.

“But, Dad!” I say horrified. “You’re not dying!”

“I’ve had another home invasion,” he tells me. “It’s time to stop driving. I’m deteriorating, Valley,” he says.

“What kind of home invasion?” I ask, but I already know. After suffering a series of micro strokes two years ago he began to undergo a string of MRI’s and psychiatric evaluations which have turned up the words inconclusive, abnormal and dementia. 

Valley Haggard

Perhaps I’m biased, but I prefer my dad’s definition of his shifting mental state to anything I’ve found online. His first extended hallucination he described as a “cosmic, horrific supernatural freak show of southern holiness.” A tall man with lobster claws for hands and his very short 300 pound wife, who, together looked like a period and an exclamation point, were the leaders of the pack. “They were hungry and fat and wanted peanut butter sandwiches,” he told me. “I thought I was going to be killed, maybe eaten.” Between trying to beat them away with pillows and making them peanut butter sandwiches, my father called my stepmother and begged her to call the sheriff. She’d assured him it wasn’t real and asked him to hang on until she got home. “I know they’re hallucinations,” he tells me. “But the real question is, are they still there when I’m gone?”

When I sob to a friend on the phone, the gravity of the situation finally hitting home, she says, “It’s like watching a redwood fall in the forest.” And she’s right. My dad has always been fit and tall and handsome but I think it’s the largesse of his imagination she’s referring to. Growing up, he always kept an open house, an open mind and a tendency to regard the lines between reality, dreams, poetry, fiction and fact more like suggestions than absolutes. As a child, he opened up for me the world of story. Now, at 63, his mind is writing a whole new chapter.

The characters that populate his imagination visit his waking life as well. Civil War soldiers ride up to him on horse back; furry white animals streak the yard; pterodactyls soar through the house. But it’s the confusion, the memory loss and the fat illiterate family of rednecks, the home invaders, with whom he’s had to make his peace. “I’m much more welcoming to them now,” he tells me. “Which makes them go away faster. The lesson here is that no evil can stand up to humor!”

When I pull into my dad’s driveway he’s bright eyed, holding a riotous fistful of purple irises from his garden. I drive him around to do the things he can no longer do by himself and when we’re done, because I don’t know what else, other than my time, I can give him, I pull the brain anchor out of my trunk. “It’s perfect!” he says and shows me a sculpture in the front yard made of bits of metal and discarded scraps of wood. “I call it stacking,” he says. And he explains to me his new art form, one that takes on different shapes and unexpected dimensions, becoming more bizarre and more beautiful each day.

The executive director of Richmond Young Writers, Valley Haggard teaches creative nonfiction classes for adults at the Black Swan Bookstore, Chop Suey Books and the Visual Arts Center of Richmond. You can read more of her wonderful writing on her blog, www.valleyhaggard.com. This essay first appeared on her blog on May 31, 2012.

Memory and Loss: A New Kind of Essay

At the end of September I celebrated the Alzheimer’s Day of Action by pledging to use memory loss, dementia, and Alzheimer’s Disease to guide the 2013 Essays on Childhood project. You can read some of the ideas I had on this post, “How Esse Diem Purples.”

Within an hour of posting my musings, I had three complete essays from writers for the project.

These essays are not drafts, or ideas for essays; they arrived in my in-box as fully formed works. Each them moved me to tears, and continue to do so on every subsequent reading. At first I was concerned that I can’t use them in the Essays on Childhood project because they break a defining rule of EOC: All essays must be written about experiences before age 18. The essays I received are written about adult experiences, but with an interesting twist. The writing illuminates the unique pain an adult feels when caring for an older relative whose mental capacity is ravaged by Alzheimer’s Disease or dementia. The unnatural degree to which the adult caregiver much switch roles with a parent or grandparent is striking. I feel as if I’ve seen something intimate and private that maybe I did not have the right to see.

And yet . . .

And yet, these writers ask us to see it. They need us to see it. Their words reflect that people they love are slowly slipping away. These are parents and grandparents to whom a debt of gratitude can never be repaid, but the desire to repay it increases exponentially as the writers witness their loved ones’ suffering. A grieving process begins before death, and one senses that even death cannot close the wounds from this kind of protracted loss.

These essays are challenging because they ask us to share something we may not want to share. In the end, I believe what they really do is give us an opportunity as members of the human family to open our hearts and minds to one another. We have a chance to better understand how families everywhere are facing a complicated situation with no easy answers.

This week, my posts will feature the follow writers:

Tuesday: Fade to Black by Jennifer Waggener

Wednesday: The Brain Anchor by Valley Haggard

Thursday: Committed to Memory by Katy Brown

I hope you will read and share these stories, and perhaps consider writing your own essay. I have created a special essay category called Essays on Memory and Loss, and ideally a collection of these kinds of stories will become valuable education and advocacy tools for organizations like the Alzheimer’s Association.

Thank you!

Image credit: The Epoch Times