Marion Agnew didn’t want to write about her brilliant, often formidable, mother. Instead, she wanted to save her. But as it became clear that was impossible, she began to write, searching for ways to understand and accept her mother even as the person she’d once been began to disappear.
This is the crux of Marion Agnew’s book, Reverberations A Daughter’s Meditations on Alzheimer’s. In spare and unflinching prose, she takes us on her unwanted journey as her mother, Jeanne LeCaine Agnew, succumbs to Alzheimer’s disease
At the age of six, when asked to repeat a simple sentence about the shape of the earth, young Jeanne announced that the earth was not round, but was “an oblate spheroid.” That precocious girl earned a Ph.D. in mathematics in 1941 at Radcliffe, the only part of Harvard then available to women. She went on to work on Canada’s wartime atomic research project, become an award-winning university mathematics professor, and have five children.
In twenty short essays, Agnew shows us “all the women my mother has been.” We see her at her beloved camp on Lake Superior, when she laid down a hard rule for her children to always chain the rowboat to a tree. She shows us a mother who could be demanding and critical, someone a friend in high school told her was “the meanest mom ever.” Someone who, when her child received a score of 99 percent on a test, would ask, what did you miss?
Most people, Agnew points out with blunt honesty, don’t think about Alzheimer’s at all if they can help it, and hope that if they ignore it, it will go away. She admits that was her hope too, when in her thirties, she learned of her mother’s diagnosis. But as she reads that a “minimental status examination reveals a dismal score of 5/30” – probably one of very few tests her mother failed, she wryly notes – she realizes she can no longer ignore what’s happening to her mother. By then, this strong woman had become someone who could hug her daughter warmly at the end of a Christmas visit and say, “I’m so glad you came. After all, you’re my favourite paper.”
In spite of that startling statement, Agnew clings to a faint hope that she will find a way to save her mother. As she holds a garbled Christmas card, that “trembling in my hand, showed me her disease – right here, blue ink on white paper,” Agnew describes how difficult it is to accept the finality of the diagnosis. When her mother begins to wander, walking through her once familiar university campus to the highway that leads north to her beloved first home on Lake Superior, Agnew lets that small flame of hope flicker. She will take her mother to their camp on the lake. She knows this won’t make her well, but a small voice inside her whispers, “Anything can happen. You never know.”
It is the letting go of that hope, and its replacement with something more fundamental, the acceptance of who her mother has become, and continues to become, that makes this book so affecting.
In “Let d be the distance between us,” Agnew recalls her mother, ever the teacher, showing her how to solve a mathematical word problem by breaking it down into simple steps:
If the speed of the train is 60, write down s = 60.
Let t be the time, so t = 5 hours
x means the thing we don’t know, the distance, d, the train travels.
Once you set up the problem correctly, it’s just work to solve it.
After a long distant call where Agnew struggles to make sense of what her mother is trying to say, she resolves to help herself:
So, I’ll start by writing down what I do know. Maybe then I’ll be able to frame the problem correctly. After that, it’s just work, and I’ll do what I have to do – accept even more changes in my mother, until all the women she has ever been exist only in photos and in memories. Solve for d, the distance between us, as long as I can.
For anyone who has witnessed a parent succumb to Alzheimer’s disease, Reverberations is a poignant and eloquent tribute to the power of paying close attention, to staring hard at the thing we wish with all our heart would go away. To solving for d as long as possible.
Reverberations: A Daughter’s Meditations on Alzheimer’s
By Marion Agnew
Signature Editions, Fall 2019, 198 p.p., $19.95
Judy McFarlane’s memoir, Writing with Grace: A Journey Beyond Down Syndrome, was published by Douglas & McIntyre in 2014. It was selected as an Editor’s Choice by Reader’s Digest and was shortlisted for the 2015 Edna Staebler Award for Creative Nonfiction. In 2012, she was a finalist for CBC’s literary non-fiction prize. Currently she’s working on a non-fiction project in northern Ontario.
The essay “Hours of Daylight,” included in this collection, took third place in our 2017 non-fiction contest and was featured in Prairie Fire issue 39.2. We love it when pieces published in our pages go onto become part of larger collections. ♥