Building Books and Backyards!

Sep 29, 2018

My mom has dementia. Because I spend so much time with her, I’ve become fully entrenched in the groundhog days of the Memory Care Cottage we call her home. The Cottage is on the main floor of a large seniors’ facility, a long hallway of rooms for 22 elderly dementia residents that leads to alarmed doors on both ends.

For every visit I enter from the independent side, swipe my fob, and look through the peephole to avoid a crash with a resident before opening the swinging door. My mom will be at the other end, sitting in the chair she likes best, purse on lap, Kleenex up sleeve. As I head down the hall, I tell Bea that no, I’m sorry but I haven’t seen her mother today, who’s likely been gone 20 years plus by now. Dorothy shows me her plastic flowers, which have just bloomed and have been watered thoroughly. Sandi is creating a traffic jam and when I try to help him move his wheelchair, he grabs my hand and won’t let go. Jim squeezes by on his way to a baseball game, wearing one white sock, one black. And so it goes.

I’m thoroughly in love with these people, for the lives they once lived and for who they are now. But I can’t help wanting more for them. Between organized activities like sing-a-long and Use Your Sniffer, residents spend huge chunks of time pacing the hallway. A few summers ago our family council got the bright idea to build a fenced backyard where our loved ones could wander about on their own, enjoy the fresh air, and play lawn games like croquet and balloon volleyball. Being the most vocal of the bunch, I got volunteered to lead the project.

Putting me in charge seemed akin to asking me to ref a playoff hockey game. I was working on my second novel, No Good Asking, used to staring at a keyboard. I knew nothing about construction and am the world’s least visual person. I think in word images, not the actual images. In Grade 8 Home-Ec class, I sewed the sleeve into the blouse neck hole and still attempted to try it on.

We had a big open green space to work with. We started with a blank canvas and drew what we wanted the area to look like, where the six-foot fence and gate would go, where to lay the sidewalk and plant trees. It reminded me of the early days of outlining my novel, which started with an idea, an end point, and some roughly sketched scenes. 

The project was going to be costly, but so too is writing. I’d picked up some handy skills over the years when applying for writing grants and put these to use with local service groups and government. We asked for wooden benches and rec equipment, concrete, gravel, fencing and sidewalk installation funds. The funding poured in.

The fence went up without a hitch. We moved some bushes and shrubs to make room for the sidewalk. At home, I had been doing the same thing with No Good Asking – moving chunks here, chunks there, making room for new pathways.  

It’s been hugely rewarding watching this blank space grow into a backyard, these blank pages grow into a novel. I did none of this alone. There was so much support along the way on both fronts.  

This summer the facility hosted a huge party to thank the donors and all involved. This fall, I’m celebrating the launch of No Good Asking with book parties and book club visits. It's been fun to see both the residents and my characters step into the sunlight.

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