In All Gone, a reflection on her mother’s dementia, Alex Witchel attempts to give voice to the complicated feelings we have for our dying parents. The book has been getting a lot of attention lately, perhaps in part because one in eight older Americans is dealing with Alzheimer’s Disease and their adult children are wrestling with a tangle of conflicted love, frustration and grief. Witchel’s memoir is partly a recounting of her early career as a writer for Elle, Mirabella and The New York Times Magazine. It is also a farewell to an intelligent, driven and difficult mother.
Lately, as I have witnessed friends seeing their parents through to the end, I have wondered just exactly how we go about describing the bond between an adult child and a parent. Perhaps it’s a simpler task once our parents are gone and not distracting us with their actual presence. Their death offers some silence to sort through the jumble of feelings accumulated over a lifetime of adoring, observing and tolerating. I sometimes wonder if part of the pain of losing a parent is having to face the maddening qualities they passed on to us without having them around to blame.
I was surprised at times by how unflinching Witchel’s portrayal of her mother was. The writing felt somewhat raw, lacking the smoothness and cohesiveness that greater distance from the events (or a more aggressive editor?) might have brought to it. But I was pleased too, to see that a person can be both devoted to and driven mad by a parent. When we say our goodbye, we say goodbye to all of it: the sacred and profane, the near-perfect and the not-even-close. We don’t miss the departed because they are saints, we miss them because they are ours, and now they have gone to where we can’t reach them. There are as many ways to say goodbye as there are loved ones to lose, and as we grow older, the losses tally up.
I wonder if part of the pain of losing a parent
is having to face the maddening qualities
they passed on to us without having them around to blame.
I have to mention a book about dementia that, I can honestly say, changed my life: Lisa Genova’s Still Alice. Genova is a neuroscientist who wrote her novel in the person of Alice, a 50 year old woman with Alzheimer’s. I continue to be amazed at what she accomplished with one short novel. There are no extraneous words in this story, and there are just enough. The book is approved by the Alzheimer’s Association – a first for a novelist. This story is capable of expanding your ability to feel compassion. When we slowly but surely take leave of ourselves, at what point are we all gone? What is our essence and what of it remains once a memory-eroding illness has taken up residence in our minds?
The Long Goodbye by Meghan O’Rourke is a daughter’s account of abject grief over her mother’s death and the lack of mourning rituals in our culture. As with Cheryl Strayed’s Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, I could only marvel at the moving articulation of a daughter’s pain at the breaking of life’s first bond.