No one I know has Alzheimer’s disease. My parents have entered their eighties with their sharp minds intact. Only one of my four grandparents suffered any kind of dementia, and Granny’s wasn’t that severe. So when I forget a name, lose my car keys, or question what the heck I’m doing standing in the basement after clomping down the stairs, I shrug my shoulders and carry on. I could still get Alzheimer’s, of course, but with no family history of it behind me, I find other things to worry about.
But when I decided to write a novel with a protagonist whose mother was in the early stages of Alzheimer’s, my lack of firsthand experience with the disease threatened to damage the one thing most critical to building the fictive world that readers love to lose themselves within: character credibility. So I set out to do the research that could show me what my own experience had failed to teach me. I went to a talk by a nationally known Alzheimer’s expert at my local memory care center. I dove deep into the web. I read Still Alice to see how someone far more qualified than me—a neuroscientist with a Harvard Ph.D. and a grandmother who had died from the disease—built a book that rang true for the readers I was most concerned about pleasing: those who either suffered from the disease or loved someone who did.
Somewhere between my worries about getting things right and penning the final lines of Autumn Imago, I created Mara, the 70-year old mother of my story’s hero, park ranger Paul Strand. Mara’s condition compels Paul to bring Mara and the rest of the family he’s abandoned to his remote Maine campground for a tempestuous ten-day reunion. After the book was published, I was honored to receive letters from a few family members of Alzheimer victims who shared how moved they’d been by my tale. That response inspired me to go back to examine how the largely intuitive process that guided my writing had worked to shape the woman who became the moral center of my story. What I discovered was that I’d built Mara less from an examination of her disease than of the impact she and it had on the family that surrounded her.
For Paul, the kitchen fire Mara starts in the home she shares with Paul’s sister, Kim and her family is the warning shot that brings him back to his family again. It signals the limited time he has to heal the breach between himself and his mother before she finally slips away. Every conversation with his mother becomes a struggle over whether to share the feelings he’s buried from their past or the compassion that can comfort her as she faces a frightening future. For Kim, Mara’s caregiver, Mara becomes the test of selfless giving mandated by her calling as a pastor. Kim struggles to live up to that divine ideal while battling the all-too-human emotions of anger and frustration experienced by anyone whose attended to an Alzheimer’s victim’s long term care. Kim’s husband, Robert, exploits Mara’s condition, as he challenges her failing memory when her instincts get her too close to the secrets he keeps from his wife and family.
Kim and Robert’s fiery teenage daughter, Aida, lashes out at everyone except Mara, revealing the compassionate heart that beats beneath an angry and conflicted girl. Aida’s tubby, shy, and brilliant 13-year-old brother, Aaron, may be the one who sees Mara, and her situation, most clearly. He diagnoses both the early stage of his grandmother’s disease and the mental acuity that still illuminates her while others can see only the dark shadows of things to come. Finally, Paul’s younger brother Tommy, a recently-recovered drug addict, provides the true litmus test for Mara’s competency. When Mara’s slight-of-hand provides Tommy with protection from the prosecution of a crime Paul believes Tommy should pay for, Paul later learns that his brother deserved the second chance his mother afforded him.
Mara, of course, is defined less by how these family members see her than how she sees herself. She possesses a wisdom and will that become more apparent as the story unfolds. And though the progression of her disease escalates the rate at which she breaks her connection to both her family and her world, that loss of every person and place that she loves is, in the end, one we all must surrender to. If writing Mara taught me anything, it’s how much I have to learn from those with Alzheimer’s Disease. They and their families are people who cherish the core component of our identity that I take so blithely for granted. My discovery of a character struggling to hold both herself and her family together before both slipped away reminded me that every day—and every memory we make in it—is a gift.
For me, that’s a lesson to remember.
BRYAN WIGGINS is a Maine-based author whose works have been published in The Maine Review, Canoe & Kayak, and Sea Kayaker magazines. For the past nine years he has been the host of the Pine Cone Writers’ Den, a Maine novelists’ collective, and a regular speaker on the New England writing circuit. By day Bryan works as an advertising agency brand strategist and copywriter. For the past thirty-four years, he has made annual pilgrimages to explore the rugged mountain landscape of Baxter State Park that is the setting for his second novel, Autumn Imago. That recently published story of family and natural drama was one of only three books selected to launch Harper Legend, a new HarperCollins imprint of “visionary fiction.” Bryan is currently at work on 48, the second book in his “Imago Trilogy.” This latest novel is a cautionary tale of personal ambition that follows its protagonist’s lifelong pursuit of hiking New Hampshire’s 48 4000 foot+ peaks. You can learn more about Bryan and his work at wigginscreative.com