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CT Poet To Share Her Beloved's Journey Through Alzheimer's At Sunken Garden Fest

In 1975, Margaret Gibson was teaching English at George Mason University in Virginia and was offered a residency at Yaddo, a retreat in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. At Yaddo, she met fellow poet David McKain.

They fell in love fast. “The most un-feminist thing I’ve ever done in my life was to put my job on hold to move up here and get married,” says Gibson. That un-feminist thing turned into a lifetime of love.

In 2006, David began showing signs of Alzheimer’s disease, which progressed slowly for 11 years until David’s death two days after Christmas 2017.

“David was a beautiful man. The transformation in personality can be painful, but he remained a beautiful man,” says Gibson. “Temperament is more important than what you know, what you’ve accomplished.”

Gibson, who lives in Preston, is a featured artist at the Sunken Garden Poetry Festival, the annual summer poetry-reading series at Hill-Stead Museum in Farmington. This year’s festival starts May 27 and comprises five events. Gibson will read June 20 with Molly Brown. Both women’s poems reflect on the frailty of humans dealing with disease.

Gibson will read from her 2014 collection titled “Broken Cup,” which deals with McKain’s progression through Alzheimer’s and Gibson’s reactions to the gradual change in her beloved husband.

Documenting A Journey

“Broken Cup” is Gibson’s 11th book of poetry. (Her 12th is coming in the fall. All are published by Louisiana State University Press.) After McKain’s tentative diagnosis, Gibson didn’t write anything for two years.

“David was in denial even with the early symptoms. I was in shock, me watching, he undergoing it, losing the ability to do things,” Gibson says. “People think Alzheimer’s means forgetting words and memories, but you forget everything, like skills. He would lose track of where we were when we were in the car. He was a handy person and he couldn’t do the simplest repairs. He couldn’t identify the tools.”

About two to three years in, still taking care of David at their home, Gibson decided to document the journey they were taking against their wills:

“Where did you grow up? You ask me. My story, you knew it once. Yours, too. Now you read your memoir more moved than when you wrote it. The story’s fresh, immediate; your depth of feeling no longer held in check by intellect. Your read the sentences, your lifelines, amazed.”

Gibson said writing her feelings down allowed her to philosophically reframe the changes that came over her husband, such as that reading of the memoir. “The damage the disease is doing is to his frontal cortex, where cognition and intellect resides. Intellect receded. What was more foregrounded now was his feelings,” Gibson says. “Everybody says Alzheimer’s is the loss of self. But what is the self?”

Some of her poems allow her to “whine” about how harried her life became when she was caring for him at their home, she says. Her self-reflection, however, is colored by knowledge of hardship:

“Along the way, there’s housework. Forget the computer, the checkbook, the inscrutable repair of whatever overheats or squeaks or ices over. Never mind the wooden lamp post, rotten, fallen on its face like a corpse in the wet grass, which needs to be cut. Your allotted jobs are to dust.”

In one poem, Gibson compared McKain’s plight with that of Sisyphus, the mythological man who pushed a boulder up a hill, only to have it creep downward each day.

“It was incredible metaphor for what David went through,” she says. “He was condemned to accomplish nothing, a life sentence.”

Memory-Care Home

After several years, Gibson placed McKain in a memory-care home in Westerly, R.I.

“He got up frequently at night. I did everything on less and less sleep. Many caregivers die before the person they are taking care of, because of their age, their stress level. What good is it if I get sick, too?” she says. “It was for our quality of life and to save our relationship. If you’re an exhausted caregiver, you’re not much of a joy to be with. I wanted to be present and pleasant and focused on him.”

Gibson’s interest in various spiritual traditions helped her cope. Some of her poems reference Sufi poet Rumi. Her interest in Zen Buddhism led her to comforting interpretations of the self. The title of the book was suggested to her by a Hindu teacher:

“Over time, the cup stains, it might chip, but one can still drink from it. Eventually it cracks, breaks, and no one can use it,” Gibson writes in the book’s introduction. “The body is like that cup. … But whatever you have drunk from the cup over the years … that remains with you.”

These thoughts gave her insight into pain and suffering.

“While there is pain, physical pain, loss and change and fear arising with Alzheimer’s or any brain-altering illness, suffering is optional,” she says. “Pain comes from resisting suffering. There are moments to be joyful and grateful. But it takes some doing. It’s a process. If you can be in the midst of suffering and say ‘all is well,’ you have arrived.”

The Festival Poets

Dublin-born poet Eamon Grennan and David McLoghlin kick off the festival on May 27 with a celebration of Irish poetry and music. Daymark will provide music and Scoil Rince Luimni will dance. McLoghlin will hold a poetry-writing workshop.

June 20 is the date for Gibson and Brown’s event. Brown will hold a workshop.

On July 11, U.S. Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith will read, with music by Tang Sauce and DJ Stealth. Smith will do a workshop.

“Poetry of Our World” is the theme July 25, with readings by Solmaz Sharif and Javier Zamora, music by Mikata Salta and the Latin Jazz Orchestra. Zamora will do a workshop.

Andrea Gibson will close out the festival on Aug. 5 with a Young Poets Day. Andrea Gibson will read with the winners of the Fresh Voices Poetry Competition.

THE SUNKEN GARDEN POETRY FESTIVAL at the Hill-Stead Museum in Farmington runs May 27 to Aug. 5. Each event runs from 5 to 8 p.m. beginning with poet discussions, followed by an hour of music and then the poetry readings. Book signings follow. Individual tickets to the poetry festival are $15 online, $20 at the gate; children under 18 free. Parking free. Details and tickets: hillstead.org.

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