The Family on Beartown Road
As I have mentioned, I have strayed a bit from my original list of 50 books. My reading habits are a bit like my tv watching habits: I will jump from show to show to show. Finding a gem makes me giddy with excitement, and I want to celebrate the off-road finds as well as my original selection. One find in particular has been The Family On Beartown Road: A Memoir of Love and Courage by Elizabeth Cohen. The story of a family's struggle with Alzheimer's, this book spoke volumes to my personal life.
The Family on Beartown Road is a snapshot of one year, as newly single mom Elizabeth Cohen lives in a small town with both her elderly father and one year-old daughter. Cohen is a member of what they call the "sandwich generation" - people caring for their children and their parents at the same time. Living with both her baby daughter and 80 year-old father, Cohen becomes witness to her child’s glee in learning language at the same time her father grows more confused with his. While there are heartbreaking moments throughout this book, it is an inspiring tale of a transforming relationship between father and daughter, and a pull-no-punches look at the realities of caregivers. What struck me most about this novel was its look at language: there is a painful dichotomy between Cohen’s father’s growing confusion and loss of memory, and her daughter’s increasing grasp of language and ever-increasing army of words. They are almost reflections of life itself: on the way in, and on the way out.
"The brain of my father and the brain of my daughter have crossed. On their way to opposite sides of life, they have made an X. They look upon each other with fond familiarity. And they see each other heading to the place they have just come from. On his way out of life, Daddy had passed her the keys.”
That last sentence always makes me teary, no matter how many times I read it. This experience is not that uncommon, as I am sure many of you have experienced an older family member’s struggle with Alzheimer's or dementia. My family themselves have aging parent stories of their own, not without pain and struggle, and I know other bloggers who are living their own brand of hell with this disease.
We recently lost Matt’s maternal grandfather, a man who had progressive dementia and increasing memory loss. His death was not a surprise, but a great loss nonetheless. The first and only time I met him was a few years back when I was pregnant with Alice. Matt's mom's side lives in BC, and we were making a trek out there to see everyone before the baby arrived. I had heard many stories of this engaging and intelligent man, as well as the recent decline of his memory. Reginald was still at the stage then where he could "fake" a lot. He seemed lucid and on top of things when I met him, making me laugh with stories from his childhood in England. But Matt's mom and grandma had heard these stories many times before, and it was obvious as the night progressed that he was relying on a certain number of memories to get him by. One moment in particular that I will hold dear was when he and I were alone in the living room while the others made dinner. He leaned over to me and whispered "you know, those people in there think I'm a bit crazy. I forget things, so I'll have to apologize in advance if I do that while you are here." He was incredibly sincere, and I was amazed to hear him speak so clearly of the situation. I laughed and said "Well, I'm pregnant and forget things all the time so I think we have that in common." He laughed too and squeezed my hand, saying "well then we'll get along great, I think."
Unfortunately, our visit with them was only for a few days and I didn’t get the chance to get to know them more. The past few years saw him become more and more unable to be cared for at home, and he eventually went into a care facility last fall. I can only imagine how painful a decision Matt’s grandma had to make, to let her lifelong partner go. But really, by that point, the saddest part of course was that he already was unrecognizable: letting go might have brought some relief in many ways. My conversation with Reginald has stuck with me since that visit, and it reminds me of how fleeting time can be. Age eventually catches up with you, and perhaps it is the legacy of lives you leave behind that matters the most. When I see Matt’s gentle ways with Alice, and listen to his long storytelling sessions with her, I can only think that this is a trait passed down from his mom from her dad – and how wonderful a legacy that can be.
Thank you, Elizabeth Cohen, for giving me cause to remember that.
And rest in peace, dear Reginald.