Monday, January 07, 2013

My Mother, My Son

Unfortunately, as anyone who has a family member suffering from dementia or Alzheimer’s already knows, things only get worse tomorrow.  The disease’s progress is entirely predictable, and there is no way to undo the damage already done or bring back the memories already lost.  And the clock is relentlessly ticking away.

If anyone should know this, it is Dwayne Clark, the author of My Mother, My Son, a touching memoir in which he shares what it was like to see his mother snatched from her family one memory at a time.  But Clark, the founder and chief executive officer of Aegis Living, a man with over 25 years experience in the senior housing field, was caught as unprepared for what was happening to his mother as any of us are likely to be. 

My Mother, My Son is part biography, part memoir, and the devotion between Clark and his mother is obvious early on in the book.  Clark recognizes how sufferers of major illness end up being defined by those illnesses.  This is particularly true with an illness like dementia that robs a person of the very memories that define them even to themselves.  It happens so gradually that the rest of us tend to “overlook the richness of experience and personality that underlies a person…their life, their contributions.”  Clark does not want this to happen to his mother.

Dwayne J. Clark
By alternating chapters pertaining to his childhood or to his mother’s younger days with chapters describing her life after being stricken by dementia, Clark has found just the blend to achieve that goal.  And what a life his mother had: born in India before the breakup of the British Empire, she lived a life of privilege there before her father’s sudden death left the family struggling for financial survival.  Mary Colleen Callahan married an American serviceman and immigrated to America, only to see her marriage fall apart.  For the rest of her life, she would work hard at whatever jobs she could get in order to support her children – something Dwayne, her youngest, would never forget. 

My Mother, My Son is the story of a son’s love for his mother, one that reminds me very much of a similar memoir I read a few weeks ago, Richard Russo’s Elsewhere.  Both men spent their formative years in households alone with rather demanding single mothers, and experienced similar issues and relationships with their mothers as adults.  Both are eternally devoted to their mothers.

Clarke closes his memoir with advice he received while coping with his mother’s illness (his mother died at age 87 after having had dementia for almost ten percent of her life).   As my wife and I go through a similar situation with a loved one, we find these bits to be particularly comforting:

·      “Understand from the outset that things will never improve.”
·      “This may well be the most difficult thing you ever do.”
·      “Try not to feel guilty. None of this is your fault.”
·      “Sometimes, with the afflicted person, comfort is the only victory.”
·      “This time will pass and you will have the memory of how you responded to the challenge.” 

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