Dave Iverson

Winter Stars

An elderly mother, an aging son and life's final journey

Dave Iverson was a broadcast journalist who’d recently been diagnosed with Parkinson’s when he decided to do something he’d never quite imagined: He moved in to take care of his 95-year-old mom. Winter Stars is the story of their decade-long caregiving odyssey, which lasted until Adelaide Iverson’s death at the age of 105. It’s a book Michael J. Fox calls “a modern classic … documenting the uncertain journey into the country of caregiving and the deeply sustaining bonds of familial love.”

All royalties from the sale of Winter Stars go to support Parkinson’s and eldercare organizations.

Advance Praise for Winter Stars:

Read an excerpt from Winter Stars

We plunge into caring for a parent without much planning or forethought, setting out on one of life’s most challenging journeys a bit like one of those early explorers bound for terra incognita. You leave without a good map, and you don’t really know where you’re going or how long the journey will last. Rough patches are followed by smooth, and then you’re surprised all over again when the next storm emerges. You find that no matter what you’ve learned, it does not predict what lies ahead. And you learn that once you’re onboard as a caregiver, it’s hard to turn around and go back, harder still to disembark.

The truth is, the purpose, meaning, and even the hoped-for destination of this journey becomes less clear, not more, over time. Horizons shift. Landfall becomes more shrouded. And even when you sense you may finally be approaching the journey’s end, you find that you do so with both dread and yearning.

We begin this odyssey not knowing how little we know. At best we head out like an ancient mariner clutching a map with only this direction: “That Way Dragons Be.”

One night, nearly two years after I’d moved in with my mom, everything came a bit unglued, including me. My mom’s house had always been the location for larger family gatherings, but in recent years my dad’s youngest sister Alice had taken over those hosting duties. From the moment my mom’s walker hit Alice’s living room floor with an aggravated thump, I had the sense that we were all in for it. She wasn’t happy, snapping at my sister-in-law Yoko, complaining about where she was sitting, responding crossly when one of us tried to respond to her grievances. Finally, I stepped over to her and said—exactly as I would have to a 4-year old—“If you can’t act better, we’re going home.”

I didn’t know you could stalk across the floor while using a walker, but my mom did. Alice asked her where she wanted to sit, and my mom snapped at her again. That did it.  “That’s it.” I said. “We’re going home.” I steered her out of the room, out the doorway, and into the car.

When we arrived back at the house, I ushered her into her bedroom with hands as comforting as steel. She stood next to her bed for a moment, gripping her walker, and then just collapsed onto the bedspread. “I hate myself,” she wailed. And here’s the thing: I didn’t say a word. I didn’t feel anything other than a cold sense of satisfaction. My mom’s cry was from the heart, but my own had turned cold.

Early one morning in the fall of her 101st year, I found my mom sitting alone in the kitchen. She was wearing her favorite deep maroon bathrobe, and her walker was perched beside her, angled out into the room. She was uncharacteristically quiet, offering no ready greeting or comment on the day’s news. She turned toward me and without preamble said:

“I think there are two Adelaides. There’s the good Adelaide, the one who’s pretty and smart and knows how to do things, and there’s the bad Adelaide, the one who’s ugly and stupid and can’t do anything.

I’m not sure which one is here right now, but I think it’s the bad Adelaide.”

I remember taking a deep breath and closing my eyes for a moment and just feeling this sense of arrival, that the steady, inexorable drift I’d noticed over the past few years had settled.

Not long after that morning, I decided to take my mom to the beach, a destination she’d always loved. When I was a kid, we’d always compete to see who could spot the ocean first. Today, as we approached the old San Gregorio General Store, the ocean came into view, a mile or so away. My mom wasn’t able to see it, so I said, “I have to keep my eyes on the road, Mom, so let me know when you see the ocean.” About a hundred feet from the water she exclaimed, “I see it!” And a wide smile creased her face.

We were at the point when I wanted us both to savor these moments, precisely because I knew they wouldn’t last, that moments can’t be banked or reclaimed later when you need a “good moment” credit. I knew I would remember this trip and that she might not. And as we drove towards the water on this beautiful spring day, I tried to remember to just take in the joy I saw on her face precisely because it would only be experienced then. I tried to remember that moments are to be treasured because they do not last—like a cloud pushed by the wind, moments part as they become.

As always, we pulled to a stop at Pescadero State Beach, our ocean destination for the past 60 years. As we were parked there, I happened to notice that a book I’d purchased for my granddaughter, the old classic The Little Engine That Could, was on the backseat. I don’t know why, but I asked my mom if she wanted me to read it to her and she said yes. Maybe she liked the title since she was always someone who thought she could too and was deeply annoyed when events transpired to obstruct her daily mission: You get up in the morning and you do what needs to be done, and you do not stop.

For my mom, getting old didn’t include giving herself a pass. It was her greatest strength and now, sometimes, the source of her greatest pain—a pain that she would sometimes inflict on others. But in that moment, I read her a story, and together we took in the sound of the words, the wind, and the waves.

What I didn’t realize was that this would be the last time we’d ever make that journey.

… In that gentle late-night light, my mom’s features seemed to soften. As she lost weight, the flesh receded, and her wrinkles smoothed. Her face subtly reformed, taking on the more angular features of her youth, her jaw line firm and thrust forward, her nose more prominent. She was really quite beautiful.

I didn’t feel regret. I didn’t feel relief. I just felt like I was where I wanted to be, accompanied, as ever, by Eileen and Sinai.

Late one night, I peeked into my mom’s bedroom before entering.  Eileen was sitting by her side with her back to me. I watched for a moment before I realized that Eileen was wearing her prayer shawl and holding her Muslim prayer beads. She was murmuring softly in Hindi. I backed away.

The next morning, I told Eileen how touched I was by what I’d seen. She smiled widely and said, “Well, Sinai taught me the Lord’s Prayer, so sometimes I say that, too.”