Self-publishing a memoir provided Elaine Pereira with an instinctive way of coping with the loss of her mother to Alzheimer's-related dementia. In this moving guest post, she describes the process and discusses the challenge of writing a readable, uplifting non-fiction book that deals with difficult facts.
I Will Never Forget is my first book, and admittedly I can’t compare the experience of writing a memoir to penning a mystery novel. However I share the sentiment expressed by a few other authors of non-fiction that it “practically wrote itself.”
The Impetus for Writing the Book
My mother’s decline from dementia was tantamount to falling off a cliff. She had exhibited a smattering of memory-related issues, including paranoia and word recycling, for several years. But the last two were laced with drama, bizarre but enlightening hallucinations, and a masterful Houdini-like escape.
Mom’s touching but warped delusion that she had to find her own mother launched a catastrophic sequence of events ultimately leading to her death. One cold winter night, Mom wandered outside in literally nothing but red flannel pajamas. She survived near-fatal hypothermia, but never recovered. Mom’s already compromised status collapsed further into one of sparse awareness.
Of course, I continued to visit my mother regularly, but she was no longer engaged. It was during those eerily quiet hours that I became committed to remembering the vitality that defined her life, and not the withering older woman approaching death.
As I sat with her, I started sketching stories from my childhood that exemplified Mom’s wonderful character, how she made Christmas magical, earned her master’s degree, taught me how to sew and made endless batches of cookies. Gradually I wove together contrasting examples of her end-of-life decline, including her stark inability to write a cheque, getting lost driving and personality changes.
During Mom’s final three months I jotted, journalised and recorded every relevant scenario of our lives as a family. However, when my mom actually did take her last breath, she and I both became silent. My writing stopped just as her life had.
It was several months before I opened my notebook with my chicken-scratched entries and notes on napkins. I literally sat on the floor while I read through it, determined to either finish it or drop it in the recycling bin. Gradually, though, as my eyes welled with tears, I simultaneously felt my lips curl upwards into a smile. During those moments of reflection I transitioned from cathartic emotional release to resolute commitment. My mother’s was a story that needed to be told, and I was committed to telling it! Like others with Alzheimer’s, hers is everyone’s journey!
Issues Unique to Writing About Dementia
Alzheimer’s is a neurological disease that robs us of our loved ones; memories distorted or destroyed, personalities changed, cognition and physical skills compromised. That said, people with dementia sometimes say and do the funniest things. You have to laugh in order to survive.
My math major mom was giddy when she proclaimed she had figured out that Sudoku puzzles had multiple solutions! She was delighted when she “saw” my (deceased) dad in the parking lot but quickly forgot about him when I went to “let him in.” Mom asked to have our dog’s ears after he died because they were “so soft.” (Weird!) And the stories continued.
In my opinion, writing about grief, death or illness requires masterful artistry to balance the genuinely deep emotions without crossing over into the dark-side of depressing. No-one wants to invest energy reading a book that’s just flat-out demoralizing without redeeming value.
However, memoirs guarantee an authenticity, intimacy and personal depth that can’t be made up. The expression “the truth is stranger than fiction” particularly applies to I Will Never Forget. My mother’s real life experiences and drama would not be believable, were they not absolutely true!
Do you have a story that needs to be told? If so, tell it!