One of the books I’ve read most recently is Remembering the Music, Forgetting the Words: Travels with Mom in the Land of Dementia by Kate Whouley. The book is a memoir of her experience with her aging mother as her mom declines into Alzheimer’s. Although that sounds sad, she manages to put a positive spin on the experience, and one that I found enlightening to read.
About the Book
Whouley isn’t shy about explaining that she had a difficult childhood and a tough time relating to her mother. However, she doesn’t dwell on this aspect and instead just introduces it as background information for a theme that the really resonates throughout the book – the theme that the past and future don’t really matter for the Alzheimer’s patient who is really in touch with the present moment.
Whouley shares how she learns to adapt to her mother’s repetitive questions and cycling thoughts by treating each time that she says something as important right in that moment and that moment only. Of course, people with age-related memory loss do remember some of the past, sometimes getting mired in it, but I still love that Whouley makes this great point that the loved ones can benefit from letting go of their attachment to the story of their relationship with the person and just trying to thrive in the present moment with him or her.
At the same time, Whouley doesn’t sugarcoat the difficulty of this experience. She discusses the challenges – financial, emotional – matter-of-factly but not without emotion. She gives a very balanced, honest, personal perspective about what it’s like to live as the decision-maker for an aging parent.
Whouley is a musician (hence the title of the book) and she weaves stories about her musical life into the story of her mother’s aging. It’s an interesting approach to personalizing a story that in this era is so universal.
A few favorite parts:
“I wonder if heartbreak is the prerequisite for empathy. Do we have to feel our own hearts break open before we can be present for the heartbreak of another?”
“Years and years ago, I read that what we think of as dementia is actually the symptom of soul-wandering. The soul, preparing to depart, begins leaving the body for short intervals, and these absences lead to the confusion of the mind and lack of orientation in the body that typify Alzheimer’s. Medicine and neuroscience explain Alzheimer’s in more concrete terms: brain plaque, lesions, missing synapses, neurotransmitters unable to connect over the deteriorating surface of the brain. the science makes plenty of sense to me when it comes to the physical roots of dementia, but I also like the idea of our souls taking mini vacations.”
“I am content living life with the hope that we can move beyond ourselves, believing our world is mutable, that we can make changes large or small, that one day fewer people will be hungry or angry or caught in the crossfire of war. At the same time – and this might be the writer’s theology too – I am fascinated by the human predicament, by our flaws, our limitations – by the fact that we are here at all.”
And One More Thing
I have to add one thing, which is that there are a lot of typos in this book … and I add that not to criticize the book but to reiterate that I don’t really care at all. I tend to have a lot of typos in my own work, including my published books, and the one complaint I often get from people about my writing is that it’s not perfect in this way. As I read through this memoir, I noted the mistakes, but I didn’t linger on them. They didn’t affect the storytelling and therefore didn’t bother me. I was glad to note this, because I often worry that I’m making a mistake in not getting tripped up on the typos in my own work. And while I do think it’s better for my readers if I pay more attention in that way, reading through this work confirmed that it’s true that I am really unaffected by that as a reader.