Dear Jann – I feel like I should call you Jann, especially after all this time. I hope you don’t mind.
Full confession: I’ve been a fan not only of your music (who isn’t?), but of your honest, sometimes brittle and frequently dark and funny social media posts about caring for your parents over the past few years. I feel like we are in the same boat, Jann – my father had Parkinson’s and my mother was his primary caregiver. When he died – suddenly – four years ago, it’s like a curtain lifted and we could see my mother’s own physical and mental health issues coming forward. She’s since been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and each day is a journey down a new path without a map. I’ve tried to write this letter to you several times, but haven’t been able to finish it.
This is supposed to be a letter to you about your book – your beautiful, amazing, honest, wonderful, heart-wrenching book – “Feeding My Mother: Comfort and Laughter in the Kitchen as my Mom Lives with Memory Loss“. Part journal, part cookbook, the book reads as an in-the-moment reflection of the emotions and events surrounding your parents and yourself as you tried to balance their declining health with your own career and personal needs. Your voice is clear throughout this memoir, but so is your mother’s and it is fascinating to see where you get your strength and sense of humour. You describe how your mother is beginning to lose track of things, of the fact that there are tiny “movers” in the house who keep taking things and putting them elsewhere. There is so much recognition of our own lives in what you write that I had to stop and breathe.
“After much reflection, I have realized how scared I am. I am scared of them forgetting themselves and taking me with them into oblivion. I am scared of how their lives seem to be stolen day by day, their shared past thrown into a blender. I am just scared.”
The recipes in this book are more than family dishes you can try out and make yourself. Instead, they are tied to memories – the vermicelli noodles you would make for your mother after visiting your Dad, the peanut butter pancakes you would make to sooth your mother’s restlessness, and even the quiche and mac & cheese you make as comfort not only for your mother but also for you. You find comfort in being able to care for and feed your mother, much as she did for you, and I can relate to that. This Christmas, I had my mother with me as we made my family’s traditional Shortbread cookies. It broke my heart that my mother couldn’t remember the recipe she’s used for 45+ years, but I hid that and instead used the routine of making the dough and rolling it out to engage her. “Not so thin,” she commented. “You need them thick to bake properly. And circles. Don’t you have a water glass you can use to cut them out?” While I didn’t have the exact glass my mother has used for so many decades, we agreed upon a substitute, and we were both pretty satisfied with the results. It is in these moments that she is my mother again, and, like you, why I cherish those stolen minutes away from the disease.
You talk in your book about the complex mix of guilt and relief you feel when you are away, and I know this feeling well. I cannot be with my mother every day in person, so I am with her on the phone each day instead. Those days when I call and my brother is with her or she has a friend visiting are secret treasures. “Good,” I think to myself, “she is being cared for” and then I instantly feel ashamed because I am not the one who is there, who is caring for her myself. I need to learn, as you have done, to focus on what I have and not on what I don’t have – to “embrace who she is, and not who she was.”
I miss my mom, desperately at times, but even so I’m glad to have this version of her still here with me. I’m trying to learn how to find a language between us that doesn’t infuriate me and hurt her feelings. It’s like a dance. A dance with music that changes its beat every few seconds.
The book is filled with beautiful portraits at first of your parents, and later of your mother. They are moments in time, these photos, and each one captures a different person in its lens. In some, your mother is impishly happy, cuddling animals or smiling at a joke. Others are more reflective, and demonstrate how the disease can pull you inside yourself. Each is beautiful, however, and shows a different facet to a complicated person. I hope you have these surrounding you at home, as a reminder of the many aspects of your mother.
My mother is, like your mother, extremely task-oriented, and prefers to have her days filled with specific activities or destinations. We have a day book for her, and she meticulously documents each action of the day (true or otherwise), delighting in reading to me the timeline of her day over and over by phone each evening. The community of caregivers surrounding people with Alzheimer’s is large and compassionate, and just as you appreciate the “homeless women” who enable your mother to stay in her own home, I too have come to value the kindness of the Community Care workers who pick up my mother and deliver her to her appointments and coffee dates. Much as these individuals take the brunt of our mothers’ accusations and suspicions, they also provide respite and care and compassion beyond anything we could have imagined and I have learned to be grateful for their quiet support.
Most of all, Jann, I want to thank you for continuing to remind me that my mother, in whatever form, is still my mother. She may not be the Mom I had growing up, but she is still a person with dignity and worth and who is often scared and anxious. By surrendering and acknowledging, as you have, I have the opportunity to provide comfort and support, and to simply be there and even to make her food if necessary, especially when life is confusing and the journey is daunting. After all, if we don’t have these moments together, what else do we have?
I have a good mother, and her voice is still what keeps me here.
Feet on ground
heart in hand
With much love, even though we have never met,
Based on her hugely popular Facebook posts and Instagram photos, Feeding My Mother is a frank, funny, inspirational and piercingly honest account of the transformation in Jann Arden’s life that has turned her into the primary “parent” to her mom, who is in the grip of Alzheimer’s.
Jann Arden moved in to a house just across the way from her parents in rural Alberta to be close to them but also so they could be her refuge from the demands of the music business and a performing career. Funny how time works.
Since her dad died in 2015, Jann cooks for her mom five or six times a week. Her mom finds comfort in her daughter’s kitchen, not just in the delicious food but also just sitting with her as she cooks. And Jann finds some peace in caring for her mom, even as her mom slowly becomes a stranger. “If you told me two years ago that I’d be here,” Jann writes, “I wouldn’t have believed it. And yet we still fall into so much laughter, feel so much insane gladness and joy. It’s such a contrast from one minute to the next and it teaches me constantly: it makes me stronger and more humble and more empathetic and caring and kind.”
The many people who are dealing with a loved one who is losing it will find inspiration and strength in Jann’s wholehearted, loving response and her totally Jann take on the upside-down world of a daughter mothering her mother. Feeding My Mother is one heck of an affirmation that life just keeps on keeping on, and a wonderful example of how you have to roll with it.
Feeding My Mother: Comfort and Laughter in the Kitchen as my Mom Lives with Memory Loss by Jann Arden is published by Random House of Canada, and is available for purchase now from your favourite online, independent and big-name booksellers. A copy of this book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review. ISBN: 978-0-7352-7392-4, 224 pages