A new book of poems by Nancy Nelson — “Blue. River. Apple.” — explores Alzheimer’s disease and dementia through poetry, and brings light to what it’s like to be diagnosed with the disease.
Learn more about Nelson and her writing and exploration of Alzheimer’s in our review of the book below.
When I began writing about Alzheimer’s and other issues affecting seniors and caregivers, I sought out writing by people who were afflicted with the disease. I was eager to hear authentic voices about what it’s like to live with Alzheimer’s, hoping to understand what it’s like being diagnosed with a disease that is so stigmatized. I was disappointed to find that there were only a few short blogs by people with the disease. But that’s why I was so excited to learn about a new book of poems by Nancy Nelson: “Blue. River. Apple.”
“Blue,” “river” and “apple” were the words Nelson missed on the memory test that helped lead to her formal diagnosis of early onset Alzheimer’s. It is a diagnosis that we know brings with it certain disabilities, but in Nelson’s case, also brought new found abilities. Nelson’s diagnosis helped reveal her muse and inspired her to write.
In her preface, Nelson describes the inspiration that strikes her in the dark of the early morning hours: “O’dark thirty is when my eyes fly open and I’m full-on awake. The words that normally tumble off my tongue, now flow feverishly by pencil over a yellow-lined pad — as though I am possessed. And I write. Poetry.”
If Nelson’s work is the result of inspiration, Nelson herself is inspiration too — a courageous and generous figure who has made a great contribution to the awareness of Alzheimer’s and the dismantling of the stigma that surrounds it.
Nelson told us that she had some misgivings about coming out with her diagnosis due to concerns that she would be treated differently. It’s a difficult decision that countless other people with Alzheimer’s have had to make too. But by coming out of the shadows, Nelson is proclaiming that there is nothing to be ashamed of, and it’s hoped that others who have been diagnosed will be inspired by Nelson’s brave choice.
Her work is also a generous contribution to relatives of those with Alzheimer’s. The book can help them understand the hopes, fears and everyday battles their loved one faces. In a foreword to the book, family caregiver and former Nevada State Senator, now Nevada Secretary of State, Barbara Cegavske notes:
“Through [Nelson’s] writing, I get glimpses of what my mother might have thought or felt. These glimpses of the unknown bring me comfort and alleviate my fear.”
In an age when anyone can publish their own book, there’s a glut of self-published works for niche audiences with glaring weaknesses and of amateurish quality. However, “Blue. River. Apple.” is not one of them and deserves no such criticism. It succeeds not just because of its strong appeal to people with a personal interest in Alzheimer’s, but because the poems work — they speak for themselves as good literature does.
Nelson’s poems alternate between exposing the mundane aspects of life with Alzheimer’s, to contemplating the difficult and profound questions the diagnosis brings. Her poems are almost living, breathing entities of their own that practically jump off the page.
Nelson’s sometimes E.E. Cummings-esque playfulness with typeface never distracts from the messages she so deftly conveys, and in fact helps keep the pages turning and the content from ever getting dry.
In Nelson’s preface, she reminds us that dementia literally means “deprived of mind.” But if “Blue. River. Apple.” is any indication, Nelson’s mind has been invigorated as much as deprived by her difficult diagnosis.
Nelson kindly allowed us to reprint a poem from “Blue. River. Apple.” in this post. In the poem, she describes the terror that comes with being lost in familiar surroundings and the relief she feels when she realizes that she is safe again.
As I drive…
I know I know this road,
Quickly, though, where am I going?
If I keep on traveling, the destination will surprise me
And just APPEAR!
PLEASE, where are my wheels taking me?
When I agreed to lead, I knew where to go,
But I’ll be doggone if I know
How in this moment to get us there!
While my foot followed my crazy,
Frantic pressure to the gas pedal for logic
Speeding through the not-so-telltale
Streets & businesses—
I couldn’t let her know—the unsuspecting car behind.
My mind only checked long enough to agree.
It’s like my mind was frozen on an ice slick,
Moving but not helping me to know where.
My heart rapidly pumping,
Keeping beat with my stomach
Like on the world’s worst roller coaster ride.
My eyes darting desperately for a recognizable
Landmark that keys in our destination.
I plead, Please, dear Lord, where am I?
I know this highway. Come on, work!
Suddenly, I was lost and broken
With no time to belabor the despair I felt.
I need a solution and now!
Should I stop-
Tell her I don’t know where I am-
I’m mixed up?
No, keep driving. It’ll come, it’ll come.
Ahhh, yes, yes, here it is! The turn-off
To Dragon Boat Racing on beautiful Lake Las Vegas.
Thank you, THANK YOU,
And a beautiful THANK YOU again!
Have you found any literature that has been helpful to you or a loved one with Alzheimer’s? Share your suggestions with us in the comments below.
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