Denise Dorrance, POLAR VORTEX

Denise Dorrance, POLAR VORTEX

Cartoonist and illustrator Denise Dorrance chats with Zibby about POLAR VORTEX, a poignant, heartbreaking, and darkly funny graphic memoir that perfectly captures the grief, nostalgia, and chaos of caring for an elderly, dementia-impaired parent in crisis. Denise recounts her experience of rushing back to Iowa from London to take care of her ailing mother and spending two chilling months with her—while a literal polar vortex loomed in the background. She also delves into the complexities of elder care, family dynamics, and the emotional toll of decision-making. Finally, she talks about her creative process and her evolution as an artist.


Zibby: Welcome, Denise. Thank you so much for coming on Moms Don't Have Time to Read Books to discuss Polar Vortex, a graphic novel. 

Denise: Thank you very much. Happy to be here.

Zibby: This is, is it my only graphic novel? It's definitely one of the only ones. And you came highly recommended by Miranda Cowley Heller, who wrote The Paper Palace, which is one of my all time favorites. So anything she said, I was like, yes. And then I read your book and oh my gosh, I couldn't put it down. It was so immersive and I, so powerful and like I felt so almost dysregulated after reading it, like so sad, almost like I had gone through grief myself, you know, that whole, anyway, it was so powerful and you did a fabulous job.

So I'm really glad I read it and I'm glad you wrote it. 

Denise: Thank you so much. It's a book you can read in one sitting. I think that's what's, I mean, it's nice to get a book and really have a whole week to read it. Bye. Although maybe it takes you one hour, I don't know. But I've kind of said it's like watching a film.

It takes about that amount of time and it's that kind of experience. 

Zibby: It's like a multimedia emotion factory. 

Denise: Do you have it in your life at all? Has this touched you in any way of your? 

Zibby: It hasn't, but it's a fear. Right. It's like, so maybe we should back up and why don't you tell listeners what polar vortex is about?

And it is not about a weather system necessarily, although that plays a part. 

Denise: It does. Yeah. Now it's very important weather system actually, because that became symbol for the dementia that went through. Um, so it's a personal story, although I have found once I started talking about it, it's a subject that touches.

So many people, even universally. So while mine is set in America, I think it's happening everywhere. This elderly care, dementia, how families survive that nuclear bomb that goes off in the family. And so it's based on my own experience of my elderly mom who fell. at home in Iowa and I was in London and I rushed back to help her thinking it was going to be a few weeks and it turned out to be almost two months that I spent with her and while she was sort of deteriorating in dementia and it became very clear she wasn't going to go home, which is a big theme in the story home.

Yes. I was quickly thrown into the situation where I had to then make a decision for her future, not just me, but you know, there, there was my sister, but we were not speaking. So that's another layer of the story. Siblings fall out when parents aren't there as leadership, really. So I was thrown into this kind of a polar vortex of having to navigate.

my mom's future. And it, it just, nothing felt right. None of the choices felt right, but we had to make one. And so the plot starts with that fall of my mom at home and me rushing to help her and then follows the intense, but short, relatively short journey that I had to make. But it was her entire future that was being decided.

So, and I kept a diary and that's, that's the only reason I could actually write this book because I kept a diary while I was there sitting next to my mom in the care home or sitting home alone in my family home. And that diary helped me access the intense kind of feelings and the funny things that happened too.

You know, I probably wouldn't have remembered with such intensity, but I had this diary with all the notes that I'd kept, which I picked up when I started writing the book. So it was really helpful. 

Zibby: Well, the combination of this new landscape that you had to navigate and bringing your own thoughts and feelings and life into it, right?

You're not just, you don't have all the time in the world. Like you have your own family and you have your own life and job and everything. And yet when something happens to a parent, you have to stop them. Like who else? And I think that was part of one of these, one of the very sort of lonely feelings of the story is like, If not you, who?

Like, what happens when our parents get older? And of course it has to be you, but also what about them? And what about, I know at certain times your mom was trying to advocate for herself and saying, well, I don't want to leave my home. But then the next minute, not knowing who she was or who you were, you know, so how do you honor their, how do you honor their wishes and yet make sure they're okay.

And then all the, all the insurance stuff and what is even possible and the nice home versus the not nice home. Oh my gosh.

Denise: Oh, it was terrible. I mean, I don't wish it on anyone and I, but I, I mean, when I started the book, I would, you know, sort of start talking about what the subject was and within a second people would jump in and start telling their own story of their own experience.

And so, you know, I think it does boil down to just a very common story that people have to deal with this issue of the end of their parents life, really. And I think, you know, the insurance. I mean, it was very important to the plot, but it's a really boring subject. And so I had fun kind of, you know, the humor kind of making, making it humorous, telling the story of my mother's insurance situation which meant she had very little money to give to her private care.. 

Zibby: And even, even though they had been putting money away in this, like, insurance scam, if you will, where, you know, their whole life they were putting aside money and then it comes time and it cares for like two hours or something crazy. 

Denise: Yeah, two hours a day, which doesn't even begin to cover it. And, you know, we, we had help and relied on the church and, you know, friends, but that's, you know, it's not enough in the day.

And then as the, as the daughter or son, you know, you just want to. Go and fill that gap. But that's impossible. 

Zibby: There was also, you, you really highlighted, sorry, I didn't mean to cut you off. You, you just really highlighted how much higher functioning she was at home, right? Like, she got right back into her house and could putter around and do all the normal things.

And yet, when she was in one of these new environments, it was just sort of like in a wheelchair, just sitting there or confused. And I think that, I think that, Every so often you had this, this fear expression on her face in the evenings, which, oh my gosh, got to me so much when like, just to have your parents be afraid like that and confused.

Denise: Yeah. Yeah. It's, and you know, my whole thing was I wanted to keep my mom at home. That was my plan. And that became an issue between him and my sister who wanted really, and with all, with Love and care wanted my mom to be put into a, you know, a nursing home or a care home that, that could look after her.

And so, you know, while my mom, my mom was highly functioning at home, but was she, you see, I didn't really, I was here. We called, I called her every day and we spoke and I could check in. But increasingly, she would start to tell really weird stories about people in the basement and, you know, you know, strange things that were happening in there.

And I do think being at home was, for her, the safest place. And when you move people with dementia, they're very discombobulated. It takes a while for them to settle. And then she settled in the care home, eventually. But that's a whole other issue with insurance and, yeah, it's, it's quite messy. It's messy.

And where is she now? She died. Oh no! Yeah, I'm sorry. But she was 93. She lived a really, really full, long life. And she died at home, you know, with my sister. She moved to live with my sister on the West Coast. 

Zibby: How much longer after the events of the book? 

Denise: About a year and a half. And what was really awful and what really made, inspired me to write this graphic novel was that when my mom died, it was during COVID.

And so we had no funeral, no memorial. There was nothing to honor her life. And that was awful. I just thought it was unfair. And so the book really is, is in her honor. It w it was to celebrate her life really, which we couldn't do when she died. 

Zibby: I was very, very close with my grandmother, and she had dementia at the end, although not to the extent of your mom, and was in a home, but she had like a blast in the place.

And both my grandmothers went to homes and like had this whole new social life and men trying to date them. And like, they were like, you know, bells of the ball in different places, but, um, so that was fun for them. 

Denise: It doesn't have to be a terrible experience. 

Zibby: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. That's still having to move. I mean, moving is one of the most stressful things at any age, right?

And you just, you know, give up that level of control and, you know, you spend your life trying to figure out what you like and you're like making rooms look, you know, inviting. And then to think that like at the very end, you have to end up in some like terrible room that is not even of your choosing anyway.

Denise: Right. Right. With a little shelf that you have a couple of photographs and, uh, I mean, yeah, it's, it's a lesson for what we think is important and what we hold on to. 

Zibby: Very true. Well, I'm so sorry for your loss and, um, and your dad and your brother and, oh my gosh, you've had so much loss in your life. It must have just brought up all of everything.

And maybe, could you talk about your, your brother had a brain tumor and then an operation that wasn't the same after. Tell me what happened.

Denise: Thanks. It was very close to my brother. He was eight years older and I really admired him and. He, uh, he, yeah, he got a brain tumor when he was at college and then had surgery to remove.

It was benign surgery, but the recovery was very long and slow. And, you know, they, it was a complicated surgery, so he really, really wasn't the same and, and that reduced his life. He wasn't disabled, but you know, just, it just reduced how he, so he was, my mom looked after him, really. He lived independently, but.

You know, he never really launched, um, but, but had a wonderful life and was a great artist. And so I don't look back with sadness, really, at any of that, actually, I. I find that, I mean, death is part of our living, and I had a very close relationship with my brother anyway, up until the end, actually. 

Zibby: I'm so sorry.

Oh my gosh. 

Denise: I'm sorry to make you sad. 

Zibby: No, it's, I'm sad because I'm, I, I am feeling you, you know, it's not, you know, I, I just. 

Denise: I know, you're empathetic. It's, it's. It's, it's. What we do on the planet, we, we empathize with each other, of course. 

Zibby: And that one, the one drawing where you had almost like the ghost of your dad next to your mom.

Denise: Oh, that's still, I mean, I haven't actually read it for a while because I, I get very emotional when I still, I wrote it. I get quite emotional. Yeah. It brings up a lot of things. 

Zibby: Tell me a little bit about. Your whole other like your career up until this book in comics and drawing and you know, just all of it.

Tell me about all of that. 

Denise: Yeah, well, so I had a completely different career. until I had my son. So my career previous to having my baby quite late in life, I was 38, was in photography and I was an agent and, you know, New York and quite a fast, fun life. And then I moved to London and had my baby, my son.

And when he was sort of old enough to understand, I started drawing with him and those became cartoons. And those were then, you know, seen by magazine editors and started to be published. And so suddenly, to my surprise, I was a cartoonist. But, um, I grew up really in a house, you know, there was a humor in my house.

My mom used to write poems that were quite humorous for our birthdays. So I think, you know, there was something bubbling inside me probably always that I would be able to write funny cartoons. So I developed a character called Mimi. Who was a, like a fashionista mom, a New York, kind of international mom, but she had a baby and the baby fit into her life rather than the other way around.

Like, a lot of parents, I think, you just naturally sacrifice for your child, for your children, and she refused to do that. So she was fun and she ran in newspapers and magazines for about 10 years. I had a column in a newspaper in, in London, and then I finished with her and then I took a break and then this event kind of happened in my life and I'd always wanted to write a graphic novel, but they're difficult, they're really difficult and they take a long time.

So I, I, and I never had the story that I really wanted to tell. So it, it kind of just beautifully happened at the same time. My mother's story and my real desire to. tell it in a different way. I couldn't do it as a comic book. I don't think of this as a comic book really. I, no, not, is it? Yeah. I call it an illustrated story because I think I really do want to reach people who might shy away from what they think of as a comic book because I've tried very hard to, you know, illustrate it in a way that's not, you know, traditional comic book format squares and right bump.

You know, it's more flowy. 

Zibby: Mm hmm. 

Denise: Yeah. So am I, I feel like I'm. 

Zibby: Yes. You answered my question. Um, it's funny my mom, her grandma name is Mimi. That's funny. I'm going to have to. Did you ever compile? 

Denise: Yeah. There's a book. There's a book called It's All About Mimi. 

Zibby: Oh my God. That's so perfect. 

Denise: We self published it.

Do you remember Kickstarter? 

Zibby: Yes. Yes. 

Denise: Yeah. So we did a Kickstarter campaign when it was really. That was very hot and happening, and that's how we published Mimi, the book. 

Zibby: Wow, and where is it? Is that Amazon? Oh my gosh. I am going to buy her like 10 copies. That's perfect. She'll like put them all over the place.

That's so funny. So perfect. Oh my gosh. I love that. So having navigated this sort of difficult terrain, which many people tread and coming out sort of with. the feelings of sort of loss and, you know, just the craziness of the experience and, you know, being in it like that. For people who are just starting this journey or who are also going through it or whatever, are there any things that made it at all easier for you along the way than you would recommend, even if it's as simple as a cup of tea at the end of the day or something.

Like what, what helped you through? 

Denise: That's a great question. And I'm not an expert in any way. And I, you know, I just experienced this very small personal story with my mom, but I, I think the takeaway for me was She wanted me close and maybe it could be anyone maybe it was just someone being close to her You know, I think dementia is quite frightening.

It's scary in your mind when you know, it's happening, you know It doesn't doesn't just hit it's gradual and it comes and goes it's it's you know, some days are good Some days are very bad. So for example, I when I When I flew with my mother, I took her to live with my sister, and on the plane she was really freaking, very disoriented, of course, and I didn't know what to do, I just, I didn't know what to do, and I just took her hand, I held her hand, and it just calmed her down, and I think, I know it seems really simple.

That sort of attention and affection, I think, is worth anything else you can do for someone in dementia. I think just being there for them, quietly, they just know you're there and holding them. That would be my advice. You're going to make me cry. Oh, I'm sorry. I don't want it to be sad. I don't want it to be a sad book.

I really, I feel like there was so much joy and humor. My mother had a great sense of humor. And, and I really tried very hard to keep that in the book. I think dark things in life, there is a sense of humor. You can fold into it to make it just a little bit lighter. Yes. It's not laugh out loud, but there's, it's, it's nuanced.

It's like there's a poignancy, but it, you know, it's, it's lots of different feelings come up in intense moments, if that makes sense. 

Zibby: Like how to buy, uh, suitably warm clothes in Iowa in the middle of a snowstorm. That was funny. 

Denise: I worked that out.

I was in such a panic when I left. I think I just didn't, I literally didn't think, and I didn't know this polar vortex was coming. Have you experienced one? Do they, do they come your way? We just had one. Yeah. We just had one. So it, yeah, I mean, I, I couldn't find the shovels in the house. I, I did literally go to Target and try and find, you know, the right gear because people are very, in the Midwest, you know, people are walking around in serious winter gear.

Zibby: Yes. Well, it was not exactly an advertisement for Iowa, the balmy shores of Iowa. You know, I was like, oh my gosh. Lovely summers. Lovely summers. Oh, that's so funny. No, I don't mean to say that the book itself is, is only sad. It's not. That's what makes it so interesting, right? It's the full range of The human emotions that go along with difficult situations and being in it.

And, you know, the good and the bad and getting to know your mom. And, you know, those couple of scenes, there was a nurse attendant who came in at one point who said, I'm here, you're safe, I'm with you. And then she ended up, ended up saying that to her. You know, a girl across the way. And it's, this is good advice, not just for dementia.

This is like when anyone's going through anything, the power of sitting there holding their hands and listening. I mean, for all the books and advice and stuff, that's really all that's really, you know, the crux of it is that we have to be there for each other through the hard stuff we go through. And it's very, very simple, I think.

And that's not a, that's not a text message. It's not an email. It's not sending flowers. It's being there in person and, and doing that is a lot more important. 

Denise: Yeah. It's, it's hard. It's hard. It's of course, people don't live, you know, right next door to their parents and, and all that guilt. And, but, but when you can, or for anyone, as you say, it's, you know, share the love.

Zibby: Yeah. Oh my gosh. Okay. Well, what else are you working on these days? 

Denise: I can't break it. I can't break it because, uh, it nearly. You know, I, I was quite, it was quite an intense period writing physically even just, you know, I was very bad about, you know, there's this sort of rules you must follow that you must take a break and, you know, don't sit for two hours and write.

But, but I would, I would sit for five hours. And because, you know, you get, well you must experience that as well. I mean, Are you disciplined about taking a break while you're sitting writing?

Zibby: I didn't even know I was supposed to take a break. I don't take breaks at all. Sometimes I sit here like the whole day and no, I'm going to the bathroom. Like I wouldn't get up like ever. I'm like, I've moved. You know, there was one day my husband flew to LA and got to the house and like did all this stuff and I was like, I have not moved. Maybe I got up once. 

Denise: I'm giving you some advice as an older woman, don't. Not good for you. There's something called the pomodoro method where you, you, I don't know.

Yeah. You write for 20, take five minute break, right? I know it's impossible, but I would like to do another graphic novel. I definitely would. I'm not sure yet. I might revisit New York, my New York days. We'll see. It's, it's, you know, this is a hard one to follow. This has done so well beyond my expectations.

I'm gonna see how this, what happens. I'm still, I'm still happily enjoying the, you know, the success of this. 

Zibby: Well, I think you should do something about your son, you know. Oh, my son? I would like to read that to you. Getting older, going away, I don't know, all of that. I mean, it's another form of loss in a way, like as your child gets older.

I don't know. Intricate. Those complicated feelings. I feel like there must have been a time where you felt like you went to college or it was, you know, I don't know. Some, some moments where you had to let go more. I feel like that's another really relatable thing that a lot of people go through. 

Denise: You know, it's tricky writing memoir.

You have to be careful. You know. Yes. That's true. Protecting others and making sure it's okay. Yeah. But in this way, I had, well, not because my mother wasn't there, but what was great about doing this story as a graphic novel is that I could suddenly leave facts and just be surreal, you know, and kind of launch into a game show or, you know, I didn't have to like literally follow what had actually happened.

Zibby: Yes. 

Denise: So you can play with facts. 

Zibby: Yeah, you can put, you know, Zoolander in your book and it's okay. 

Denise: Contact Ben Stiller. 

Zibby: Oh, did he say it was okay? 

Denise: No, I haven't told him. 

Zibby: Oh, gosh. I was wondering about this, right? Well. 

Denise: Yeah. Well, I hope so. I hope he likes it. 

Zibby: Ben Stiller, if you're listening, it was used in a really great way.

Don't worry about it. 

Denise: Yeah. Yeah. Thank you. 

Zibby: Well, Denise, thank you so much for your story. I'm actually writing a graphic novel with my daughter. Not really. Yeah. She's that we hired an illustrator of a book that she loves like a real, you know, his name is Mike White and he, she loves his books about Mellie Bean.

Anyway, we wrote a middle grade novel. It wasn't really being picked up. I was trying to sell it and she only reads graphic novels and she kept being like, let's make it a graphic novel. So we were in the process of adapting it, which is quite fun and illustrating, you know, one chapter at a time with, we sent him the, the chapters and he's, he's doing them.

So she was just picking out the character's clothes yesterday and changing the colors that he wanted to use. And she's like, no, those colors don't match. Like, why don't we try this? 

Denise: Cause he's got. It's a shame she can't illustrate it. 

Zibby: She really could. She's an amazing artist. She really is. She does art all the time.

That's all she does. All day is, you know. 

Denise: Why isn't she doing it?

Zibby: I don't know. She didn't want to. 

Denise: It's a lot. But maybe you could put some of her drawings in it. Like, give her, you know, that would be interesting to have her drawings in there as well. 

Zibby: Yeah. 

Denise: Maybe there's a dream a character has or something, something that she could do.

Zibby: Yeah 

Denise: Yeah. A little event. 

Zibby: She could. She could illustrate, this is a good, so it's called Diary Hoppers about a group of girls who have the power to go into their mom's diaries, so, and go back and, sort of go back in time. It's not about time travel, but it's so you, like, learn more about your parents.

I thought it, I think it's like a great idea, but anyway, so, but now what she could do is she could do the diary itself and we could have little pages from that. 

Denise: Nice. 

Zibby: Yeah, I love it. Oh my gosh, I'm going to ask her to do it today. 

Denise: Yeah. Okay. 

Zibby: Yeah. She'll love it. 

Denise: Really cool. 

Zibby: So this is good.

We'll just, we'll just keep giving each other ideas and, you know, checking in. 

Denise: I like it. Yeah. That's cool. I love it. 

Zibby: Anyway. Okay. Denise. Thank you so much. Thank you. It was really a pleasure. 

Denise: Thank you. Lovely. Lovely to chat with you.

Denise Dorrance, POLAR VORTEX

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