A Song At Twilight

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.

It’s a good book, dammit. A Song At Twilight, of Alzheimer’s and Love, by Nancy Paddock. It’s horrifying. Honest. And it’s hard to stop reading it.

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)

8 thoughts on “A Song At Twilight

  1. Dennis Lang says:

    Hmm….Wonderful piece about what must be a wrenching, chilling, yet beautiful book. Just your description hits too close, having what I now understand as the privilege to have taken my mother in, and to have been so close for her last twenty-four months. It was encroaching dementia and other vulnerabilites, and her profound struggle against those vulnerabilities. The refusal to have her life determined by them. But the gift to play an intimate role in that last chapter of her life was ultimately her gift to me.

    1. Bless you, Dennis. Sharing those years with your mother, in your home… knowing you, I’m not surprised you did this, nor surprised that you count it as a gift to you. Regular life, for someone like me, is pretty easy. It’s the tough stuff that shows who we are. You showed who you are, my friend.

  2. Kelly Groehler says:

    Counting my blessings to date with my own parents; Dad is gone, but he thankfully was lucid while dealing with his heart condition. It’s agonizing to think about, but I may read just to brace myself for those possible scenarios someday with my own mother. Thank you, Bruce.

  3. Ellen says:

    My favorite poem from A Song at Twilight was entitled “In Dream”:

    I look out the kitchen window
    of our old St. Paul home.
    Snow is falling, and Mom and Dad
    are going out together.
    As they slowly back out of the garage
    in a white convertible,
    Dad begins to put its top down.
    The roof frame rises, scraping
    and catching on the garage door.
    Then, sprung, it is forced straight up
    in the air.
    Oblivious, as the convertible’s
    fractured roof rocks and breaks free,
    Dad continues backing out.
    My parents ride off into the storm,
    their car filling with snow.

    (used with permission of the publisher)

  4. John Gaterud says:

    Thank you, Bruce.

    Bittersweet pleasure, publishing Nancy Paddock’s book, which keeps knocking readers over. If not in our own families, then Alzheimer’s, dementia, and related ailments of aging are next door, across the street, around the corner. Among achievements of “Song” are Nancy’s monumental courage and candor in chronicling the unfolding events of her parents’ decline—of “death in slow motion.” Took years to watch, and even longer to write. Brave stuff: borne of care, respect, diligence, honesty, love. A tribute in and to their honor. Of, about, and for memory. Of being itself.

    “A work of noble note,” as Tennyson (and Mankato writer Terry Davis) would remind us.

  5. Brave stuff indeed.
    On NPR’s Talk of the Nation today dealing with aging parents was a topic. A couple of people talked about secretly wishing their parents’ ordeal would be over, that they would get it over with and die. How horrible to feel, and how brave to admit. It’s comforting to know that others have trod the same dark paths. That’s why Nancy’s book is such a surprise, showing the lows and the highs. One of the guests, who’d written a book about aging, was asked by the host — “Do you want to live to be 100?”
    A tough question. Not many make it there whole.
    But ask me when I’m 99.

  6. Jeremy Powers says:

    I think one of the truisms of truth is that most of it hurts, hence the old “truth hurts, doesn’t it” toss-away quip. And exposing a soul – your own or another’s – also exposes the bad and the good. After all, none of us are even close to perfect. I think the combination of those things is why people concern their earthly time with the latest Kardashian makeup diet, sports statistics of people they’ll never meet and the latest level of NASDAQ. It’s easy; it’s remote. It costs nothing in real human terms. Just fame and fortune. Nothing important.

    Losing a parent should be gut wrenching. It’s supposed to hurt. If it doesn’t, your family was probably dysfunctional. I lost my father to a massive heart attack in one minute. I lost my mother to cancer over the period of one year before she took control of death and “induced” her suicide. One was not better than the other. There are just a few ways you can leave this life and dying in your sleep at a ripe old age, not being a bother to anyone, and leaving behind a loving family is the is the one fundamental human wish.

  7. Nice piece, Bruce. There are very few of us who have escaped watching a family member go through a terrible disease and ordeal (AIDS and Alzheimer’s in my family’s case). It does make you aware of what is important in life…our relationships with other people, real people, not celebrities, sports heroes etc., as Jeremy pointed out.

    In dealing with hundreds of families in my business, I see many of the same themes played out when mom or dad faces things like Alzheimer’s, cancer, ALS etc.

    After 17 years of doing this, I’ve learned that families, like individuals, are often imperfect. They are almost always dysfunctional to some degree, just as most of us are neurotic in varying degrees. But when faced with adversity, they more often than not pull together, reconnect and remember what is important.

    It’s too bad we don’t live every day overlooking the petty things and focusing on the big picture. Books and pieces like this remind us that we should.

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