on 4 February 2014
Sally Magnusson's WHERE MEMORIES GO: WHY DEMENTIA CHANGES EVERYTHING is, more than anything, a heartbreakingly beautiful love letter to her late mother, who succumbed, following a years-long struggle, to that cruellest of diseases.
Mamie Magnusson was a journalist and columnist, locally famous and beloved in her native Scotland, where, with her more famous husband, TV personality Magnus Magnusson, she raised five children of whom Sally is the oldest. The author's memories of her parents and the ways in which she and her siblings rallied together to provide care as her mother's mind slowly slipped away form the beating heart of this touching tribute. As an investigative journalist, Magnusson also inserts alternate chapters incorporating the research she undertook about the insidious nature of Alzheimer's and other causes of dementia; and she also documents the grossly inadequate and often casually cruel way in which dementia patients are treated and 'warehoused' by the health care system. And while all of this is helpful and informative, the thing that makes this book so damn good, so heart-wrenchingly effective, is the personal stuff: the stories of her parents' childhoods and courtship, her memories of her own childhood, the description of losing her father to pancreatic cancer, and, most of all, the final years, months and days of her mother's life.
There is humor here too, as Mamie was a person who loved to laugh and sing and make others laugh - a quality she kept right up to the bitter end, fighting through the fog of dementia, groping for words. And losing the 'words' was perhaps the cruelest cut of all, because Mamie loved words, made her living with words. But when the words began to go, it simply became too very sad. And what made it even worse was that Mamie seemed to know what was happening to her, as evidenced by her "heroic ability to summon words to express what [she] was going through." This is heartbreakingly clear in some of her last coherent sentences, phrases like -
"I've reached a stage where everything is nothing ... I'm just daft ... I just felt the whole world was going."
And I must readily admit here, that I could not remain objective about a book like this. Having lost my own aged mother in the past year, Magnusson's descriptions of her mother's rapid decline and the indignities endemic to old age made me remember my mother's last months and weeks. As I read Magnusson's account, I often found myself grimacing, on the verge of tears. I knew, of course, that a book like this could not end happily, and at the end, which I knew must come, I wept.
This is a book about love. If you have lost a beloved parent, you will relate. And yes, you will probably weep. HIGHLY recommended. (four and a half stars)
- Tim Bazzett, author of the memoir, BOOKLOVER