When I told family members I was working on Don’t Leave Yet, a few asked, “Why relive the emotional trauma of your mother’s Alzheimer’s? Why revisit the past?” My answer was succinct and important: so I can understand her domineering personality, the fear she instilled in me, and our complicated and flawed relationship.
Deena Metzler explained that remembering events is to “re-member”, to gather all the parts of one’s life to make it whole. In my case, I wanted to uncover the root of Mom’s negativity, bitterness, and depression. I needed to know why I always strived to be the perfect daughter. At first these tasks appeared insurmountable. But after planting myself squarely in a chair with a sturdy ballpoint in hand, I had college-ruled notebooks bursting with ideas. Ultimately, the process of writing and transcribing all the material into a word document on my laptop took five years. It was worth every hard-fought page.
In the beginning I assembled situations that would best support the major theme of my mother in the early stage of Alzheimer’s. It seemed straightforward enough: show her isolation after my father passed away; describe her unwillingness to move into an assisted living facility; and display her inability to make the necessary changes in her day-to-day life.
However, I discovered the story was more intricate. Beneath each recollection were layers of secondary themes requiring exploration and strategy. Of course, I reasoned, Mom’s narrative was paramount. Yet there was also my story, a hemisphere of physical, emotional, and psychological experiences intertwined with hers. I challenged myself to write an honest account of her disease and its impact on me, and to figure out what events in our lives were essential to appreciate who we were. We hadn’t arrived to this point in a vacuum.
While memoir demands preciseness, it also requires coping mechanisms and adjustments. When I learned Alzheimer’s was slowly destroying my mother’s ability to recall facts and events, to make effective adjustments, and to perform simple motor tasks, I wrote about the sadness and pain that comes with witnessing such changes. Yet I also recounted feeling somewhat grateful that a disease was partially to blame for her progressive relentlessness.
I recognized the magnitude of letting go. That the past was just that. Years of decisions and reactions we couldn’t revise. Just as I was accepting the inevitability of Alzheimer’s, I acknowledged memories for what they were. Completely out of our control. Lost and irretrievable. Gone.
As Mom steadily declined, I visited her in the assisted living center as often as I could, first in her second-floor apartment, then in a three-person room in the Alzheimer’s unit. Each time I told her I loved her. Each time I listened more closely. When she recited stories over and over or asked the same questions repeatedly, I nodded and held her hand even though I had the desperate urge to quiet her. I strived to be patient and calm, reminding myself that “it was the illness talking.” Life was changing fast, and the transformations were heartbreaking.
My mother passed away while I was working on the third draft of my memoir. I was relieved her eight-year battle was over. And I was completely aware of a renewed sense of compassion and the value of human dignity.
Toi Derricotte said that writing is a way to mother oneself. When I returned to my notebook after Mom’s funeral, our story was comforting. It kept her close to my side. Telling it, however, became more reverential. I examined our past with greater intensity. Although I hadn’t completely relinquished the desire to be a perfect daughter, I didn’t allow it to crush my spirit or stop me from moving forward. I rid myself from guilt once and for all.