June 5, 2016 by Paula Reed Nancarrow
My mother was a big reader. I got my love of books from her.
Even after she started to have trouble speaking – one of the earliest symptoms of her Alzheimers – I was determined to keep that going as long as I could. I didn’t know at the time that language is processed differently in different parts of the brain: hearing words lights up one part of the gray matter; thinking about words another; reading words another; speaking words a fourth.
I did not know this. I just knew she loved to read. I remembered how she had watched my husband’s grandmother bury her nose in a book way into her 80’s, a bottle of scotch and a pack of cigarettes by her side, and said, “That’s how I want to go.”
Except for my mother, sub Chardonnay for the scotch, and peppermint Lifesavers for the cigarettes.
At first I would find out what my mother was reading and get the same book, and we would talk about it over the phone.
We read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn together that way, and To Kill a Mockingbird, and My Antonia. The first went over best. At the bookstore, my sister began helping her make book choices, as she would have a very hard time making decisions. Particularly ones that involved spending money, which she was certain she never had. This drove my father crazy, as if it were a personal insult.
The last such book I remember reading with her was Ann Weisgarber’s The Personal History of Rachel Dupree, a novel about African American homesteaders in the South Dakota Badlands in 1917. I was very impressed by this book, and its depiction of the effects of racial and gender inequity on very real people whose personal characteristics prove strengths in some circumstances and liabilities in others.
Marriage is a complicated partnership.
Issac Dupree is a proud man, willing to work himself (and everyone else) into the ground to prove he is equal to – or better than – the homesteaders around him. He loves his family. But Rachel Dupree is also the wife that allowed him to apply for twice the acreage, and the womb that produces the labor that will eventually run it. To what extent do we love the people we love, and to what extent do we use them to serve our own needs? It was a delicate balance in 1917. It is a delicate balance now.
The opening scene – in which Rachel watches her six year old daughter lowered into a well by her husband Isaac during a drought to fill a bucket – upset my mother. It upset me too. They are partners, Isaac and Rachel Dupree, on the land. And yet they are not. And because they are not, her child is in that well. “It was so sad…” my mother says over the phone., “…about that little girl. At the bottom of a well. With a…thing.”
The thing was a snake, lurking in the dank and the dark. Its red eyes glowed like coals.
My visit last October was planned, but the situation was not.
I wanted to make sure I got in one more trip before the end of the year. Thanksgiving or Christmas might have seemed logical, but my own adult children are here in Minneapolis, and we need holidays too. Besides, my mother and I were finishing a book.
Christian romance novels and are not my favorite cup of tea. Though there are a lot of cups of tea in them. My sister had picked the first book, thinking my mother would like it. She was right.
My son, who works at Half-Price Books, was intimately familiar with Debbie Macomber. When I described The Inn at Rose Harbor to him, with its three interleaving romances and its knitting patterns and cookie recipes in the appendix, he laughed. “Who do you think is buying hardcover books these days, Mom? The formula sells.”
We were now on Rose Harbor in Bloom.
Like the other books, I tried at first to get her to read chapters on her own so we could talk about them, but that wasn’t working. First she’d forget what she’d read. Then she’d just forget to read. It had been months, and we were only on page 20.
“I’m going to bring my copy when I come, Mom,” I said. “We’ll sit on the back porch and read it together.” And we did, out loud. First I took a page, then she did. She barely talked now, but her reading was still almost fluent. Though she’d hesitate over hyphenated words, and sometimes sound words out wrong or act a little dyslexic, mostly it was all still there.
We’d made so much progress during my visit that I told my mother we’d try to finish the book reading together, over the phone.
My father didn’t think it would work, but it did. “It’s like a miracle,” he said. “Do you think she understands any of it?” I thought she did, though she forgot what she read almost immediately, and often would lose her place.
But it really didn’t matter. She was doing something she enjoyed. We had three chapters left, and I was stretching the phone calls out so we could finish it in person and get a good start on the next.
A week before my scheduled arrival, my mother had a fall.
My sister and my father were in Rochester, where they were taking the tubes out of his tear ducts, the ones that were supposed to help with his watery eyes. My brother was taking my mother out for a short walk, something my father was simply unable to do. It was a fine day, as was the walk, until the return lap.
When you are tired, you stop picking up your feet as much; you begin to shuffle. That’s when most of us trip. When it happens to people with Alzheimer’s, however, they don’t have the quick reflexes to recover. They lose the instinct to reach out and grab an arm, or to try to break a fall.
She went down flat on her face. There was blood all over the road. My brother called 911.
My mother was in the hospital a week and acute rehab for another two.
Her nose was broken, and both eye sockets were fractured. There was bleeding on the brain, not uncommon in a fall with Alzheimer’s. The brain has shrunk. It rattles around.
I had already been scheduled to come out, and was there for the first week of rehab. She cried when she saw me. I think I cried too. Called me by name once or twice, without any prompting at all. This was unusual. At one point she said, clear as a bell, “You colored your hair.” Most of the time, she spoke word salad, like a baby talking into a toy telephone.
But when I brought the book out, she said Debbie. We talked about her picture on the back cover, the lovely scarf, the pretty broach. Or I did, and my mom said, “Yes.”
I tried to get her to read a little bit, but she couldn’t track more than two or three words.
Her finger would skim along the lines like a bird hunting over a pond, ducking down once in awhile to retrieve a fish. I read her the last three chapters, got the couples mostly all hitched, set the scene for the next book in the series.
The one we’ll never read.
But thanks, Debbie. We’ll take the happy endings where we can find them.