Sherri Levine Honors her Mother’s Memory with Poetry

Images of poet Sherri Levine and her book

By Sherri Levine, Oregon, USA

“I love you,” I’d say to my mother every night after our walks around the neighborhood.

“I know you do,” she’d say, bundled in turquoise fleece which smelled like roses.  She would always wait at the top of the street for me to get to my house and wave goodnight. I’d bought a house right around the corner from her townhouse to be near her.

It was autumn in Portland, Oregon, rainy and cool when she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. We had been to a psychiatrist who gave her a memory test that stressed her out—stressed both of us out. As her caregiver, I was going through the frustration and confusion of her not remembering things. She didn’t remember the day, the year, and other significant things. She was agitated and often blamed me for relocating her to Portland from upstate New York. I felt guilty, at times, taking her away from her New York home, where everything was familiar to her and she knew exactly where to go to paint en plein air, which she had done all her life. She had no car, no friends, but was determined to keep active.

“I’m miserable here,” she’d shout many times.

She was prone to inappropriate outbursts. Once, at the bank, she blurted out, “Where’s the chubby teller? I want to talk to the chubby one!” I was so embarrassed. I remember sweat trickling down inside my fall jacket.

At a dentist appointment, she’d asked the dental assistant if I was her cousin. I felt such utter despair. She didn’t remember who I was.

Then, her driving became reckless. As a passenger, I thought she might hit or kill someone. She might kill us. Friends told me to hide her keys. I didn’t want her to lose her dignity. I called a doctor to visit our house who determined she was unfit to drive. She couldn’t drive to paint en plein air. She had to walk to the grocery store.

She eventually stopped blaming me for moving to Portland and took art classes at the local college. Her depressed and agitated mood was lifting. But then she couldn’t remember where her art classes were and started roaming and asking strangers for rides.

I’d cared for my mother every day as she had cared for me. She was still partly there.

I am a poet, and she would attend my readings. She always encouraged me to write. She understood the importance of being an artist. We loved each other so much. She often said I was like “the mother she never had.”

Her mood changes were causing me a lot of stress. I decided to take a short break and go on a two-day mini vacation to Ashland, Oregon, eight hours away. But after being there for two hours, I got a call from a social worker that she was roaming and ended up in the ER. After speeding down the freeway, by the time I arrived in the hospital room the doctor had found that cancer had spread through her body. I felt that I had lost her through Alzheimer’s, and now I was really losing her.

Three months later, she was gone.

"Stealing Flowers from the Neighbors" by Sherri LevineAll the caretaking and stress I had been through was gone, too. I fell into a deep depression. I dealt with it the way I could. I wrote a book of poetry called Stealing Flowers from the Neighbors. The title poem describes what happened three days before she died.

She loved flowers. Many of her paintings were of flowers. I wanted to buy them for her, but I was so distraught I didn’t even think of going to the store. I ripped, tore, and grabbed a beautiful bouquet of flowers from the neighbor’s garden and entered her hospice room, “her weary head waiting for me to appear.”A Joy to See by Sherri Levine

A year after she passed, I was still grieving. I felt I had to do something to honor her and her art.  I asked 27 of the most prominent Oregon poets to write ekphrastic poems—poems in response to art— and published a book called A Joy to See. I had a reading event at Powell’s Bookstore in Portland. Over 50 people who attended were enamored by the tribute.

Sometimes, I see my mother at the top of my street, bundled in turquoise, waving me home.

I bury my nose in her rose scent.

“I love you,” I say.

“I know you do.” She smiles and waits for me to get to my door.

“Goodnight,” I wave back.

Sherri Reads “Stealing Flowers From the Neighbors”

About the Author

Sherri Levine, author of "Stealing Flowers from the Neighbors" and "A Joy to See."Sherri Levine is a poet who lives in Portland, Oregon. Her poem, “Facedown,” won the Lois Cranston Memorial Prize (Calyx). She won First Prize (Poet’s Choice) in the Oregon Poetry Association Biannual Contest in 2017. Her work has been published in Prairie Schooner, The Timberline Review, CALYX, Driftwood Press, Poet Lore, The Opiate, Verseweavers, CIRQUE, Clackamas River Review, The Sun Magazine, and others. Sherri served as Poetry Editor for VoiceCatcher Journal. Her chapbook, In These Voices, was published by Poetry Box in 2018. She escaped the long harsh winters of upstate New York and has ever since been happily soaking in the Oregon rain. Sherri is the creator and host of Head for the Hills, a poetry series and open mic sponsored by the Hillsdale Library and now takes place virtually. Her first full-length poetry collection, Stealing Flowers from the Neighbors,” is published by Kelsay Press.

Connect with Sherri Levine

Instagram: @sherrilevine4
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