I didn’t want to read this goddam book. It’s a Minnesota poet telling the story of her parents, in love for half a century, falling apart with Alzheimer’s. Drying up. Blowing away. Husks.
My mom died of Alzheimer’s. Dad died of ALS. Wasting diseases, stealing little bits of ability, little bits of dignity, day by day. Once strong, vibrant. Sinking fading falling. I don’t need to go there again.
But it’s my friend John Gaterud, the best editor and writer I know. The small press — Blue Road Press — that he’s created with his daughter Abbey. He tells me about the book as he edits, as they design, typeset, proof, birth it.
He sends me a copy. No. Thanks. It somehow makes it into my suitcase on a road trip. I pick it up. I don’t want to go back there.
And it’s been nominated for a Minnesota Book Award in the Memoir and Creative Nonfiction category. Deservedly so.
Paddock dissects with brutal clarity the rending issues that twist the souls of children as they watch their parents fall apart. Shouldn’t I take my mom or my dad into our home and take care of her or him? Turn my life upside down and give them the daily, hourly, minute-by-minute care they need? They turned their lives upside down, taking care of me when I was a baby, whenever I was sick. But you don’t. They go into a nursing home. And you don’t visit as often as you should. Guilt. Metastasizing guilt.
And then, as the tragic disintegration drags on and on, you say, but god not out loud — if only this would end. And — disagreements among siblings about what to do next, when to take away more freedom and dignity from your parents. When to move them from the home they love, when to get rid of the furniture and mementos that can remind them of the glory of their lives. And is your brother or sister doing as much as you are? When you’re not doing enough yourself? And money — care for the elderly, for the dying, is expensive, and money is always a bind.
There were moments of astounding heart-filling joy as I was with my parents as they dissolved. A sweet smile, a thank-you, shared laughter at the absurdity of it all. Enduring love. But so often those moments were overwhelmed by the horror.
Paddock shows it all. As a poet does, she evokes the humor and love, and the deep deep pain. Her dad, a lifelong reader, still reads as his brain frays. “He laughed and said, ‘I only need one book.’ Then, with a quick gesture — as if wiping words from his brain — added, ‘It just goes shoooop!'” And her mother, in the nursing home: “‘I stand by the window and want to go out,’ Mama announces. ‘But we’re old so we can’t.’ She says ‘out’ with such fervor.”
Paddock’s father, aware that he’s slipping down a one-way vortex, observes, “Humans ought to come with an off switch.”
I’d like to say this book in inspirational, uplifting. But it isn’t. It’s grim and it’s harrowing and it’s funny and it’s warm like blood and it’s so damn real. It would be a good scouting report for anyone whose parents are starting to fail, because it shows, with compassion, the truth of what’s ahead. The book does what great books do — grabs life and sets it loose pulsing in front of you, whole and ugly and sublime.
As a child of the Sixties, to me every message from the universe is received as “live now, live fully, there may be no future.” And part of living fully and now is, sometimes, rolling up your sleeves and holding life as it dies.
“Loss breaks the heart,” Paddock writes, “but opens the soul.”
Winners of the 24th Minnesota Book Awards will be announced April 14. Good luck, Nancy and John. Dammit.
— Bruce Benidt
(Book cover image from Blue Road Press website)