By Eleanor Cooney
In the third grade, I was kicked out of show-and-tell for three weeks. I told a story that the teacher, Mrs. Fitz, had specifically asked me not to tell. She knew about it because she heard me blabbing a preview to some of the other kids early that morning. “I don’t think that’s the sort of story to share with the class,” she’d said, shocked.
Mrs. Fitz was a gentle soul, and we loved each other, but my story upset her. She didn’t want me to tell it, and I hardly blame her. It was pretty terrible. Roaming around the woods and river near my house in Connecticut, I’d spotted something snagged in the shallow water: a burlap bag. I dragged it ashore, opened it, and found a drowned dog. I remember what it looked like: A brown-and-white Bassett hound. Even though Mrs. Fitz was shaking her head sadly in the back of the room as I stood in the front and she saw that I was about to spill it, I went ahead anyway. I had to. It’s not that I wasn’t sad for the dog. I was, and still am. But I just had to tell that story.
I know that some will find the story I tell in my book Death in Slow Motion shocking and terrible, and they’ll think I shouldn’t have told it. When my mother came down with Alzheimer’s and I undertook (in vain) to save her, a calm dispassionate voice, quite separate from the desperate babble of other voices in my head, whispered: Here’s your next book.
This is not to say my motivations were identical to those of that headline-grabbing eight-year-old. But I still know a good story when it comes along. In this case, though, I wouldn’t be telling the dreadful truth for its mere gratuitous shock value; the subject matter begged for a brutally frank telling, something as pitiless and unladylike as the disease itself. I was, by that time, a seasoned, published novelist, figured I had the “chops” to do the job. My writerly sensibilities tend toward the “noir” anyway, and you can’t get much more “noir” than Alzheimer’s. It was a match.
I started with an article, published in Harper’s magazine. Serendipity led me to an editor at HarperCollins, who said: “I don’t want the book to be just a longer version of the article. I want background and character development. I want to know who your mother was, who you are.”
The possibilities were tantalizing: My mother was a writer, and I’m a writer exactly because she was a writer. We lived in a town right out of Cheever. She’d had three husbands and plenty of lovers. Even without Alzheimer’s shuffling onto the stage, her life, the life my brother and I had because of her, would have been the stuff of literary memoir or a roman à clef. The illness added a classic dimension of tragedy to the story, but it was not the whole story. This is not a “help” or a “how to” book, nor even really an “Alzheimer’s” book, though there’s plenty to be learned about the disease, and about failure, including what I learned the hard, hard way. It’s a cautionary tale, and it’s also the story of a woman, my mother, a superb writer, anything but ordinary, brilliant, beautiful, and sometimes dangerous. I wrote it the way I did because of the writer she was. I wanted to bring her to life so that the reader will know, really know, what’s been lost.
About the Author
Eleanor Cooney is the author of the T’ang Trilogy, historical novels set in 7th- and 8th-century China. This September, her nonfiction memoir, written for Frank Gregory Ford, Midnight in Samarra (Skyhorse, NYC), will be released, the searing account of an intelligence agent and medic who went into Iraq in the ’03 invasion and witnessed high crimes and misdemeanors on the part of his countrymen. She’s completing a new novel, a literary thriller set in the 19th and 21st centuries in Wisconsin, plus a collection of essays, No Country for Old Women. Her work has been published in Harper’s magazine and Mother Jones magazine. She lives in coastal northern California.
Connect with Eleanor Cooney
The Tang Trilogy
The links below are for her long essay “No Country for Old Women,” a new “final chapter” to Death in Slow Motion. The editor divided it into four parts because of its length. They should, of course, be read all together, as one piece. They’re in order here:
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