Secret Waters


by Linda C. Brown

2nd Printing -April, 2008

Secret Waters, published in 1997 by Blue Begonia Press, went out of print within one year. The press is pleased, and proud, to announce that Secret Waters has been reprinted. We believe the book's importance will help another generation of families confronting Alzheimer's, and Alzheimer's related illnesses. We are grateful for Linda Brown's courage in writing, and witnessing for families in difficult times. Linda Brown, a teacher for many years in the YakimaSchool District, lives in Yakima, and still carries a passion for writing and listening to stories. She is available for readings and discussion of Secret Waters.

A few months ago one of my favorite cousins confessed that she hated my book, Secret Waters."Why?" I asked.She told me that the writing was too vivid.She could almost see my once vital mother in the nursing home and she hated what she saw.

I understood more than my cousin will ever realize.She resented having to release her memories of my mother.She hated the changes that ravaged the woman she once knew.

Well, those of us who have loved ones suffering from Alzheimer's or who must face the bleak environment of a nursing home, we don't get to block out the realities of each day.We have to face those long halls, the sounds of wailing, the calls for help.

My father and I fed my mother every single day for fifteen years even after she had ceased to know either of us and had lost her ability to speak. The choice facing us was to abandon mother or to make sense of what we really didn't want to make sense of.

I was angry for a long time.Angry especially at the Alzheimer's that stole the essence of my mother and then I wanted to fight the nursing care system that couldn't seem to rise to the occasion.I remember a conversation I had with the main cook at the nursing home after my dad and I had filled out preference forms for mom's food.Through gritted teeth I said to the cook, "Do you see on this form that my mother does not eat pork?" "Yes," she said smiling."Well, that means she eats nothing from the pig.""Of course," she said, still smiling."Well, bacon is part of a pig and pork chops are part of a pig and ham sandwiches are part of a pig.Do you get it?""Absolutely," she said.The next morning I wasn't at all surprised to see mother's breakfast tray: ham and cheese omelet with a side of burnt bacon.

I couldn't fix my mother.I couldn't change the health care system.I couldn't forgive all my family for pretending that everything was just fine.The one thing I had that I had some control over was my journal and my sense of humor.So, I started to write down "my angst".

By the end of a few months, my journal had become my constant confidant.Something outrageous happened?It went into the journal.Before I unleashed my fury at life's injustices?It went into the journal.Funny things happened?Into the journal.

Soon, even my dad was coming home with stories and for the first time in a long time we were laughing again.And it felt good.

My cousin can hate the book.She didn't have to live it.But I love the book.It's proof to me that I have finally made peace with myself and the universe.

There was an even more important lesson that shook me to my core and ended up serving me later when my dad also needed additional attention. When mom originally went into the nursing home, it was all I could do to walk directly down the center of the hall with my eyes averted so I didn't have to take in the pain and despair of aging and dying. I tried to keep my experience solitary.This was between my mother and me.My personal pain was mine.As an only child I learned well how to keep the important "stuff" buried.Tell no one.So I was not prepared for what began to occur at the nursing home.

Each night I fed mother her dinner or sat with dad as he served her, watching the spoon dip into creams or greens or beiges and lift to her lips which signaled her mouth to open like a bird's.That was my focus.But that's not how life works.We can try to avoid the lessons, but they keep slapping us in the face until we pay attention and that's exactly what happened to me.

At mother's table was another couple who seemed to replicate ours.The gentleman at the table fed his wife who still spoke occasionally, but he cared for her with the kind of tenderness that every one deserves, but few receive.The Thornycrofts.Matt and Marie. And, they changed my life.

Chip Thornycroft started telling me the story of how he had met and fallen in love with his Marie.At first I listened politely, my eyes following the choreography of spoon to lips, but Chip had a timbre to his voice that insisted on more attention, so one night I pulled out my journal and said, "Why don't we write this down?"

"Okay," he said and the deal was sealed.Chip gave me his story.It was not the story that his son and daughter-in-law wanted to hear, but it was the story of a Montana man, who had battled poverty and alcohol and loneliness and had found his Marie.I wrote about Chip and Marie in a piece called "Bearing Witness to Minor Miracles" and again in "Behold the Night", but I also have a separate book that is Chip's story--all his.I asked what I could give him in exchange and he studied his leathery hands for a moment and said that he'd kind of like one copy of the story to give his son and he did like lemon meringue pie.It was the best deal I ever struck.Time at the nursing home started to pass too quickly and I learned about love from Chip and Marie.

Perhaps it was because mother no longer spoke or perhaps it was because I was at the nursing home daily, but at some juncture, the patients regained their individuality and I began to interact with them on a personal level.There was the former nun who wandered the hall with her head tilted downward.If you came too close, she'd swing her left arm and slap you soundly. One woman searched the halls for her beloved husband who had died many years ago and each time she was told of his death, she wept anew.Another woman had worked her entire life and now folded and refolded laundry.

Secret Waters captures some of what I experienced in that most painful period of my life.When I return to the book, I no longer weep or remember that time with sadness.Instead, I go back to that time and recall how much I learned about life, how much I learned about myself.

The book has changed, evolved.Perhaps it began as a documentation of my mother's disease and my powerlessness to make her and her world better in our crazy health care system.But now, as I read the words again, I can see that Secret Waters is really about how each of us face life's challenges and survive. Maybe we even flourish.Bad things happen all around us, but we learn to confront them as best we can. We learn to float, to swim, and sometimes we can cross the entire channel.That's one of the secrets.

Linda C. Brown