Poems and Essays from a Caregiver

A collection by Anthony Cordasco, December 2019

Editor’s note: it is always special to find a piece which resonates so deeply with you – brings you to tears, and reminds you exactly why it is you do what you do. Anthony and Julie’s story has inspired me deeply. When I launched Project Healthy Love it was exactly this idea of a persistent and deep love that weathers all storms (such as the onset and development of Julie’s dementia) that I wanted to showcase. I thank you, Anthony, for bringing your story into our lives. And thank you for sending me more and more – more photos, more poems – when I ask for it. Here is to everlasting love and the resilience of a commitment to one another. As Anthony writes, Julie “Gets up in the middle of the night / to tell how happy she is we were married, / even though she doesn’t remember when we were married / just that we are.” Love is not in the minutia of details: it is in the strength of its feeling. Thank you, Anthony and Julie, for reminding us of this strength. – Ava Balis, 2020

My hands are my soul and they once crafted sterling hollowware, gold jewelry, fine furniture and forged steel gates. Now, I am a caregiver for my wife and all my hands do is administer and, occasionally, write. If any of my pieces have merit it is solely because I kept to the adage, “Write about what you know”.

Read more about Anthony’s story HERE ⯈


Bleeding Heart

A gardener planted,
in my absence,
a Bleeding Heart
beside the brick path
where she knew
I had to pass,
had to see.

Blocks of orange
neatly laid by the
drops of red random clusters
that every day would remind me
of so obvious a message;
visible hearts.

A gardener hid
a surprise
buried deep
for me to discover –
from a heart,
a bleeding heart;
from the cold ground,
a warm Spring
blossoming beauty.

The flowers returned
each spring as her present,
as she returned every morning to me;
and it grew larger with the years
until suddenly all were gone.

I took the constancy of a return
so much for granted
that it took a while
before I noticed,
nothing,
but scattered weeds.

Memory
reaches back
for the gift
and the
lingering certainty
it was
forever.

What I know
is
there is nothing of beauty now
in that place
of the ephemeral
she once lovingly
tended
for me.


Leaving

There were no packed bags,
A sign.

No hangers huddled
Abandoned in a closet,
No neatly folded clothing
Deserting sachet scented drawers.

Too subtle too
Were depleted memories;
Interests,
Friendships,
Names.
Conversation
Drifted,
Concentration lapsed,
The flower garden failed
To call,
Loving was a chore.

Silent wonder
Questioned.

Books lost meaning.
Forgotten
Spinning wheels,
Paint brushes,
Were sold.
There were no tears
At gravesites,
Gifts to buy,
Notes to write,
Cards to send.

If only I had known
That you were leaving.

Much needs attention,
That is neglected and forgotten
Now;
For the person you are.
Many things
Could have been asked,
Should have been said
Then;
For the person you were.

If only I had known
That you were leaving.
A sign.
That disease could
Extinguish so completely,
A life.


Paperwhites

March; the first day of Spring, emerging bulbs and memories.

We live in an old farm house; dirt basement, uninsulated attic with rafters auger drilled and pegged.

 It was in the deep freeze of the attic that my wife use to bury the paper-white narcissus bulbs intended to be presented first as a valentine present and later for my springtime greeting. This concept of subjecting something to a dark, freezing environment to force them to bloom was foreign to me but thoroughly understood by my wife; once.

I never really understood the principle; in a harsh environment I wilt and am overrun with aphids. It was at miracle of nature cultivated by my wife for my pleasure, for many years, but now lost from what little memory she has left.

Paper-whites meant leaving Winter behind and I loved watching the green sprouts inching slowly upward; paralleling the mercury outside. The blossoms would explode in clusters of tiny white flowers that would soon require support (for which my chopstick always served its double purpose).  Their distinctive, pungent scent filled the room and I miss the frequent detours I would make to the table where they sat to take a deep breath of my wife’s gift of beauty and renewal.  A familiar scent representing all the previous years of Spring with her.

I haven’t been given the paper-whites (or any present) for Valentine’s Day in many years.  They no longer usher Spring in for me. But I stubbornly continue to give gifts on Valentines Day; attempt to recall and describe, to her with flourish, what we use to do.  I have less and less success as the years progress.

There was that homemade candy store, in particular, where she would sneak off after work for my dark chocolate orange slices (always wrapped in white paper with shinny white hearts).  I would do my own post job darting and get, from the same store, assorted milk chocolates and the tiny red cinnamon hearts she loved.  I loved getting the cards she would make with her drawings and original poems for me. 

All the things she and I used to do.  I don’t frustrate her with as many lost recollections anymore but I still have this need to fill an emptiness at this time of year.  Reliving the memories in her presence makes them seem more real and, at the same time, sadder.  Talking about my dark chocolate orange slices while looking at her makes me feel (almost) like she gave them to me; like she can still know and do those things.  I can look at her and the empty space on the table and mentally connect two things; neither of which is really here.

She listens and smiles out of politeness to everything I tell her about Valentines Day, and bulbs and spring but she doesn’t remember.  How tragic for two people to lose an entire season. Such a beautiful season.

My wife is, currently and most days, occupied with a jigsaw puzzle.  Not gardening and forcing bulbs.  She methodically sorts the pieces by color as she sings; the ipad next to her streams the song “Oh where oh where can my baby be, the lord took her away from me…”.  It’s not my creative imagination at work.  That song is, indeed,  playing just now.

Spring use to be the mischief in me (Mr. Frost too). 

Baby chicks and newborn lambs. Aconites and snowdrops emerging along our brick walkway.  So much to enjoy, so much to look forward to.  Right about this time the weeping cherry tree blossoms ignite like a thousand tiny pink flares; exactly, every year, the way they did the year me moved into this farm house.  Another lost, shared memory and another empty tradition in the cycle of things.


Relics

I still have trouble touching the things she touched.

Presently, I’m opening plastic bags my wife put away for winter storage in our Maine cottage.

There’s something moving (emotionally) in picking up the pillow case and spilling out what she folded and stored in them. I think of the hands and the mind and the eyes that performed the task; for me a palpable image. I unfold and handle them with a reverence appropriate for the relics of San Pietro in Vincoli (which we happened to see; being in Roma the one day of the year the chains are displayed).

Tears fall on the sheets as I trace the hem for a tag with the size; Julie knew the size and had a plan of organization (I am sad for the lost mind). After I make a written note of the size, (fitted or top sheet, full or twin), I’m frustrated with myself because I can’t refold them the exact way, or as well, as she had; and more tears fall. Perhaps archeologists feel this when they uncover something lost, found, and disturbed.

I’m being silly and sentimental but I can’t help thinking that Julie (the old Julie, my real Julie) held the corners, tucked her chin on a crease to make another fold, brought her hands together to make a final, neat parcel. I have seen her do this in the past and it always impressed me; it was graceful (a ballet of hands and arms and head and fabric). Only one other person’s mundane household movement was transformed to a thing of beauty (impressed and pleased me this way).

My mother used to iron (she pronounced it like r-yun) clothes with a grace and beauty and thrift of movement worthy of filming (and I wish I had). I can’t describe it or give her just due but the movement of the iron (particularly around buttons) – over the shirt, around the collar, then slid off to the edge of the ironing board, moving the shirt on the tapered point for the arms, sliding the iron back for a few passes, slide the iron back on the board, position the next arm, move the iron to the fabric; never once picking the iron off the surface of the board, never burning the board cover or the the thing she was ironing (there was a rhythm and harmony of sound as well)  – was amazing and beautiful to me as a young boy and later as an adult. I tried to iron like she (when I did iron) but it was just the same process and steps without the flair (my dancing vs Fred Astaire dancing).

Julie folding sheets was the same delight for me.

Her tiny hands so delicate and moving with such celerity: turning large rectangles of Egyptian Cotton into a compact stack, or spinning wool, or making pie crust, or delivering lambs (wise hands, artists hands). I still look at the same hands but they no longer move with the purposeful guidance they once had).


Best of Shepherds

I can see so many memories, so many ghosts from where i am sitting; in the sun, on this porch she said was the best part of our old house.

I see the sheep grazing, the lambs racing around. When she stepped into the pasture they would come running to be with her. They loved and trusted her, she so loved them; hugging the woolly balls and inhaling the sweet smell of lanolin. They forever cast a weary eye towards me; always looking the tool bearing predator.

The small red shed that was going to be my workshop but became, instead, the home for the chickens and the peacocks is close to me. She would go in to collect the eggs every morning before work and be accosted in the parking lot by anxious coworkers who coveted the fresh golden yolks.

Next to the chicken shed comes the sheep shed envisioned by me as my workshop from the first time we inspected the property long before actually buying the farm. It still holds, after twenty seven years, my wood stove intended to warm my winter days of creativity.  It holds a mouse; more productive than I have ever been in the building.  Inside that shed many a freezing night was spent awaiting the birth of lambs.  And many singles and twins were

saved along with the ewes by her slim deft hands so talented in untangling unseen hooves.

I can see the Concord grape arbor from which she made such good jelly; Welches couldn’t dream of producing.  A few feet away from the grapes is the low stone wall; a remnant of the original barn long gone from before our time here. It shelters the Currant bushes and their berries she stood over the stove turning into jarred preserves. Next to them, the rhubarb for my strawberry rhubarb pie with a delicate crust. She was an artist even in baking.

Closer to me is the hedge she put so much energy into trimming and traversing the hedge the flower beds, normally cleared for the emerging spring bulbs, but now packed with neglected fall foliage. Fallen branches she would never have tolerated litter the lawn; her energy and interest long ago lost.

The quince tree she planted with such great expectation is to my left, blooming gloriously; ignored and forgotten by its gardener. The forsythia bush is bright yellow awaiting the attention of the women who would marvel and collect branches to be arranged for indoor appreciation. I point them out but a dark cloud has eclipsed her appreciation of them.

The orchard she directed me to dig so many holes in while she gently lowered apples, peaches, quince, pear and plum trees (all lightly tamped down with her tiny feet), is in with the sheep along with the huge holly tree whose cerise ornaments adorned her homemade wreaths.

Behind the orchard is the small circle of pine trees. Every first snow we would go dancing among the trees pretending to be in a scene from the Nutcracker Suite; the dance of the sugar plum fairies.

I can see where the pasture drops down to the river that runs through our property and beyond that the hill we use to climb, way up to the top of our twenty acres; sharing our joy in the empire we oversaw. The river we took walks along while our dog splashed and bit the water is the only constant.

Back at the sunny porch runs a path of bricks I came home from work one day to find her carefully placing in a pattern.  I told her to stop because she wasn’t putting them down on the proper bed of sand. I said I would come back and do it properly. I never did, the path is unfinished and the bricks she put down so many years ago are still flat and true; as true as I was wrong and I see her sitting there smiling at me every time I walk that path (which is every day).

I’m sitting on the boards she painted; the floor I restored and found a big hand hewn beam supporting.

I have a photo she took of me waving to her from the roof of this porch I forged metal brackets for to keep it in place against the stone house for another two hundred years. I can see her standing down there waving still.

There is much more legacy remaining ; seemingly endless memories of my wife I can’t see from the front porch.

Around the corner just out of view the weeping cherry tree is in full bloom just as it was the week we moved into this house. She smiled in confusion when I took her picture under it yesterday.

There are the white and purple lilacs, a few yards behind the house, not yet ready for clipping by their avid collector and arranger. A delicate pink rose she transplanted from the Jersey Sea Shore is still dormant.  Nana’s rose who’s cultivated shoots were thoughtfully passed on to family members is in the circle of roses she put by the barn; the gazing ball waiting expectantly for something to reflect. Her ever increasing in size asparagus bed, the blackberry bushes that defied growth or death for ten years, poles where beans twined and grew four years ago still lean against the stump of the pine tree that once held one end of her clothes line. She doesn’t know what beans are; doesn’t recognize clothes pins.

I know them all without getting up from my seat.

Her vision and care and beauty surround me; inside the house and outside. Inside my mind and my heart.

Some people tell me to take joy in my recollections which are, to me, so vivid and current that they confuse what is real.

They make me hurt, as much for what was as for what might have been.  A window to what is lost; lost then, lost now, lost forever.

A week old lamb is calling now. I hear it, the ewe hears it but it is no longer audible to the gentlest and best of shepherds. Something, delicate and rare, has gone missing from the flock and my world.


Julie’s Poem

This poem was written more than a year before Julie was rushed to the emergency room with what, at the time, was diagnosed as Total Global Amnesia. Eventually the correct identification of a rare brain disorder (Frontal Temporal Degeneration) would be made; unknown cause, untreatable, progressive, fatal. The subtle signs of FTD probably predate this poem by ten years (Julie was around 56 years old). We never got “The Golden Years”.

“This is the sea poem i wrote to celebrate Anth’s retirement. He retired from teaching last July. (2016)” ( – Julie)

“Dear Anthony,
Despite the fog around us now
and the clouds and snow above,
our course is SET for sunshine
aboard our boat of LOVE!

We’re headed for Life’s “Summertime”;
days filled with sun and joy.
I’ll always be your first mate girl
and you’re my sailor boy!

We’ll sail the turquoise waters
and gunkhole around the land,
we’ll rest below the palm trees
and take walks on pure white sand.

Oh, Captain of my lifetime
I’ll follow all your plans.
We’ll love and live a long time
And kiss while holding hands!

Saint Valentine is with us❤️
to guide us as we go.
We’ll land on “Happy Beach Key”
and say “goodbye” to snow!

(Looking forward so much to being with you
In our retirement from work and
The beginning of the Golden Years!)

All my love, Julie”


Love

I will never be so well loved.
She doesn’t understand the lights
reflected in the window
but she knows the glow of love
in her heart
and tells me so
with flashing green eyes
and big white smile.
Gets up in the middle of the night
to tell how happy she is we were married,
even though she doesn’t remember
when we were married;
just that we are.
She doesn’t know the weeping cherry tree
that bloomed the month we moved to the farm,
or the orange poppies by the barn,
or the hollyhocks she planted
at the edge of the porch.
She doesn’t know to look
for the emerging asparagus,
the budding apple,
the red currant bush,
the tulip bulbs she scattered about.
They will never be so well loved.