The San Francisco Chronicle,
Sunday, February 9, 2003 The last details of a demise/Writer tries to stay sane while her mother succumbs to Alzheimer's
Reviewed by Richard Zimler
How do you envision retirement and old age for your parents? Tennis,trekking and "Sex in the City" reruns for Mom; golf, carpentry and 10 years of neglected reading to catch up on for Dad? If you're lucky, thatkind of pleasant future might be awaiting them. But as Eleanor Cooney's heartfelt and exquisitely narrated memoir, "Death in Slow Motion," makesharrowingly clear, if Alzheimer's sets in, you can kiss all those dreams goodbye -- every last blessed one.
In that case, have no illusions: Mom or Dad won't be able to open a can ofsoup or go to the bathroom without assistance. It's going to be a death- defying roller-coaster ride into dementia and physical decay for your loved one and, if you decide to hang in there with him or her, crushing anger, remorse and frustration for yourself as the caregiver. And don't forget the hospital and nursing-home bills that will plunge your bank account and theirs toward zero.
Cooney has subtitled her book, "My Mother's Descent Into Alzheimer's," but it might less poetically be called, "How Mom Lost Her Mind and Took My Whole Emotional and Professional Life Down with Her." Sounds depressing? Yes and no. The author's savagely detailed, no-holds barred account of 18 months of trying to care for her beloved and once vivacious mother might send you running for Valium or whiskey (Cooney's own sanity-savers of choice), but she tells her story with such panic-stricken speed and wicked black humor that you are much more likely to find it immensely moving and terrifyingly funny. Imagine listening to a talented war correspondent's account of a hopeless and heroic battle -- Cooney has done nothing less in this account of her desperate struggle to give her mom a dignified and comfortable last few years.
Her mother, Mary Durant, was once a keenly intelligent, witty and sensual beauty, a highly praised novelist and environmental writer with so much to do and so many friends that finding time to simply sit still seemed the hard part. After 23 years of marriage, she and her husband, Mike, a generous and affectionate environmental activist and author, still hated being apart. They spent a year and a half tracking John James Audubon's travels from the Florida Keys to Labrador to write the story of his explorations and, on finishing the project, agreed that being together 24 hours a day over so long a period was the best thing that ever happened to them.
Everything changed, however, in 1989, when Mike died suddenly of a congenital circulatory problem. He was only 55 years old. Durant, 10 years his senior, was never able to free herself completely from her subsequent depression and the overwhelming feeling of having been cheated. On reaching her 70s she started becoming forgetful, but Cooney and her brother figured it was just her grief and loneliness. Warning bells went off in their heads, however, when a stranger calling from Canada persuaded Durant to send off $8, 000 in cashier's checks to pay the "taxes" on $50,000 she'd supposedly won in a sweepstakes. Pretty soon she was becoming disoriented and unpredictable and plagued by impossible-to-diagnose stomach problems. The author and her brother made the regretful but necessary decision that Mom could no longer live on her own.
Complicating matters over the next weeks were Durant's irrational bursts of anger and her excessive drinking. Paranoia set in, too and she stopped trusting her loved ones, absolutely refusing to leave her home in Connecticut without a fight. Cooney and her brother were forced to chase her around the house -- with Durant shrieking the whole time to get her to go. This later became one of the memories the author punished herself with during her most depressed moments.
The only solution Cooney could see was moving her mom out to a comfortable apartment near her home in Mendocino. From that point on the two of them began their long journey together into the land of soul-suffocating stressand heartache. They learned a great deal about the current state of American health care along the way, much of it unpleasant. Unfortunately, Durant eventually developed into the Mike Tyson of Alzheimer's patients, managing to wreck every strategy her daughter could devise for getting her proper care. In documenting her mother's decline and contrasting it with her youth,
Cooney only falters in dwelling a bit too long on the exotic and artistic friends who populated her pre-Alzheimer's existence. The writing remains vibrant and compelling all the way through this intelligent narrative and the shifts in time between past and present keep things lively. "Death in Slow Motion" is a testament not only to the author's great love and respect for the woman who most influenced her life, but even more importantly to how she battled against all odds to put that love to work for them both.