The experience of writing a poem, play, or story, or creating a photograph, is like riding a train through wonderful, unexpected scenery. When I wake up in the morning I hurry to get to work because I never want to miss that train. My train derailed the morning of my father’s Alzheimer’s diagnosis. Dad hadn’t chosen a trip into dementia but here he was on track to forget his friends, his family, and even his own name. Dad told me to Continue reading →
Silent Storm: What We Remember, What We Forget, What We Discover
A Novelist Meditates on Writing about Alzheimer’s
By Marita Golden
I didn’t choose. I was called. That’s how inspiration, art, and creativity work sometimes. I am often asked why I wrote a novel about Alzheimer’s disease.
I am not caring for anyone afflicted with it and no one in my family, from what I know, has ever been diagnosed with dementia or Alzheimer’s. So there was nothing in my life, my past or my then-present to explain the fictional expedition I launched. This is what happened: I was trapped inside the wrong story. I had written 100 pages of a novel that was going nowhere very fast. So I stopped, took a breath and gave the process over quite literally to a higher power. I was willing to “let it be.” Two weeks later I was writing the story of a wife who finds herself and the nature and meaning of love transformed as she cares for her husband who has been diagnosed with early Alzheimer’s disease. Sometimes as a writer you get called, summoned to dive in, to plunge into the terrifying beauty of a completely unknown narrative landscape. When you report for duty, that is when you know you are writer.
Four years later, after hearing the stories of those with Alzheimer’s, their caretakers, the professionals who care for them, the families who are burdened and sometimes buoyed by the demands of the disease, the researchers trying to find a cure, the was novel finished. I realized that I had started out as a novelist and ended up as not only a novelist, but an activist/advocate for greater awareness about the epidemic of Alzheimer’s in Black America.
I met adult children who found themselves stunned and incompetent in the face of a parent’s diminished capacity, and others who unflinchingly faced the disease and embraced their parent with the kind of transcendent love and loyalty of which they never knew themselves capable. I gave a 20-minute talk and reading about my life as writer before a group of residents of a memory care unit. They taught me to be here now, the value of the present moment and that they are indeed present, sensitive, intuitive. They remember the most important things–the meaning of human touch, an honest look in someone’s eyes, that a whole story can be told in a fleeting fragment of an iridescent memory of joy, and that words are often overrated.
But it was the statistics that turned me into an activist/advocate, that convinced me that maybe I was the right vessel to capture, contain and pour this story into the hearts and minds of readers. Statistics reveal a “silent storm” raging in the Black community. If Alzheimer’s is a crisis for America, it is an epidemic for Black America. African Americans are twice as likely as whites to develop the disease, are only three percent of those enrolled in trial to find a cure, and could be 40% of all those with Alzheimer’s by 2050.
Sometimes a story asks to be written and then asks to be used as a platform. My novel, The Wide Circumference of Love, about the Tate family, Gregory, Diane, Lauren and Sean is a story for everyone who has been alive long enough to hurt and heal, to feel coursing through their blood the strange strength borne of all we are sure we cannot bear.
All art is political, and social, and at its best engages in a frenzied dance with everything being thought and lived and denied and discovered swirling around it.
A story is never “just a story”. A book is never “just a book.” A story, a book, can set the world on fire or give a writer, or a reader, something to believe in or fight for.
About the Author:
Co-founder and President Emeritus of the Zora Neale Hurston/ Richard Wright Foundation, Marita Golden is a veteran teacher of writing and an acclaimed award-winning author of over a dozen works of fiction and nonfiction. As a teacher of writing she has served as a member of the faculties of the MFA Graduate Creative Writing Programs at George Mason University and Virginia Commonwealth University and in the MA Creative Writing Program at John Hopkins University. She has taught writing workshops nationally and internationally to a variety of constituencies.
Her new novel is The Wide Circumference of Love. Her other books include the novels, After and The Edge of Heaven and the memoirs Migrations of the Heart,Saving Our Sons and Don’t Play in the Sun: One Woman’s Journey Through the Color Complex. She is the recipient of many awards, including the Writers for Writers Award presented by Barnes & Noble and Poets and Writers and the Fiction Award for her novel After awarded by the Black Caucus of the American Library Association.
Her cover story for the Washington Post Sunday Magazine on African Americans and Alzheimer’s diease can be found here:
I was six years into my medical training – a second year resident in family medicine – when I saw the first patient who I now know had Alzheimer’s disease. A middle-aged man brought her in, explaining that she was his mother and that the family was at wits end. His mother didn’t seem sick, he explained, but she couldn’t remember “anything,” made poor decisions, and would wander off and get lost if left alone. In the examining room, she wouldn’t sit down. From my limited Continue reading →
On a drizzly April day in 2009, I walked into a hotel suite in downtown Pittsburgh to meet members of a North Dakota family stricken with a rare genetic mutation that guarantees early-onset Alzheimer’s disease.
My life changed profoundly that day. Up to that point, I knew precious little about Alzheimer’s. I was a journalist on assignment for the University of Pittsburgh, whose Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center had been studying the
DeMoe family for a few years. I was stunned by the magnitude Continue reading →
“Mom,” my daughter Kim said, “You know you’re going to have to write a book about how you’re dealing with Dad.”
I recoiled at the thought. It was all I could do to get through each day of unknowns and added responsibilities. “No, hon. I have to live this before I can write about it. I have no energy to think about ministering to others right now. Maybe after it’s all over—maybe then, I could think about writing—but not while I’m dealing with all this raw emotion. I’m still finding my way.” Continue reading →
When I was twenty-seven, my sixty-year-old mother died of cancer. I was left to care for my temperamental, over-controlling, eighty-year-old father. While grieving for my mother, I was also angry with her for dying young. Taking care of her elderly husband was supposed to have been her job, not mine.
Dad was bored, lonely, and wanted me to come over daily. I was a fulltime musical theatre performer struggling to build a career, find a husband, and a start a family of my own. An aging father did not fit into that equation.
We had never had fun together, and I didn’t know what to do with him. I finally figured out that the only thing he enjoyed was talking about himself. I didn’t know it, but reminiscing with him was the start of my work as a Creative Arts Therapist. Continue reading →
When I sat down to write The Pebble Jar around this time last year, I had no idea of the personal journey the book would take me on. In March of 2016, my little Nana passed away at the age of ninety-one after a long and painful battle with Alzheimer’s. By the time she fell asleep for the last time, we had almost completely lost the essence of who she had once been, leaving us with a shell of the person we loved. Continue reading →
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. Continue reading →