Bearing Witness to Hope when Memory Fails

downloadYou are likely familiar with at least a few frightening stats regarding dementia. On the radio just the other morning, an announcer gloomily shared a recent report from Alzheimer’s Disease International stating that 44 million people live with the disease – and warning that this figure will likely increase to 135 million by the year 2050. A global epidemic, it is being called. But then, the stats themselves are not what haunt most of us, are they? Many of us have moved beyond the distant dread, having already experienced the intimate pain of seeing people we love altered by Alzheimer’s – a parent or a grandparent, a sibling or a friend. For poet and author Jeanne Murray Walker, that person was her mother, Erna Murray Kelley, who began to show signs of the disease in her early eighties.

Over the course of a decade, Walker’s feisty, sociable and practical mother became the frail, anxious and often-confused woman that her loved ones barely recognized. The Geography of Memory is Walker’s attempt to “bear witness” to the suffering and pain of her mother’s decline – and to the grace that upheld her and her family in this distressing transformation. As one would expect, this is a hard read, full of sorrow and fear. But this is a larger story, too – a tribute that honours the complexities of human personality and memory, and the God who created them. “I wrote this book because I believe the news about Alzheimer’s is more hopeful than what we hear on the street,” Walker writes in the preface. By hopeful “news” she does not mean she has new, optimistic facts from science to hold against the gloom. No, her hope is anchored in the paradox of suffering: that it can alter people for the worse but also for the better, because it can bring with it a renewed awareness of love and grace. “Alzheimer’s is bleak. It is,” Walker says plainly. “But it is not all horror. My mother’s last years reveal that for all the heartache, there can still be joy and laughter, insight and love.”

Geography of Memory is non-linear – a  format that that feels especially fitting, given the ambling, irregular nature of human recall. The first chapter opens with Walker and her husband in a Paris hotel room, receiving the call with news that her mother had passed. Walker’s grief and bewilderment prove that we are never prepared for death – even when we know the time is coming, and when loved ones have radically changed.

As her mother’s memories become more faded and jumbled with the past, Walker’s own memories are illumined anew. Her account moves back and forth between memories of reckoning with symptoms of her mother’s disease in the 2000s and memories of her 1950s childhood in Lincoln, Nebraska. In between these narratives are what Walker calls “Field Notes” – one-two page reflections on the research into memory and ways to understand its role in our world.

Walker reveals that her family has been touched by the chaos of death and chronic disease before, with her father dying of heart failure when she was just a girl and her severely asthmatic brother passing away at eighteen. Through it all, Walker remembers her mother as stubborn and resilient – a dedicated nurse, a talented painter, a fundamentalist Christian and a devoted mother whose desire to protect could be in turns admirably comforting and frustratingly restrictive. Still, as a mother herself now she can see why the chaos compelled her mother to want to keep her family safe.

Walker (on right) with her mother.

As a teenager, Walker’s relationship with her mother became caught up in clashes of faith – clashes that eventually led Walker to leave the church of her youth. But even these tensions, when recalled afresh in the light of her mother’s ailment, help Walker appreciate the “multiple selves” within us all. “They are stages in a journey – the child, the disillusioned teenager, the mother, the poet, the grandmother –stations on the way toward learning what it means to be human,” she says. “They are not unlike the many mothers who lived inside my mother.”

Since Walker is a poet, playwright and professor, it is not surprising that literature becomes her lifeline. She learns to embrace the language of her mother’s Alzheimer’s – the illogical statements and flashes from the past – as metaphor, rather than words to be corrected. She agrees with a researcher’s claim that “the language of the demented is closer to poetry than any other kind of speech.”

Along with a new understanding of language, Walker also reaches a new awareness of God – of who he is and how he works through our many chapters of “selves.” Of course there are times when God feels distant, and feelings of helplessness and despair overwhelm her. Even so, loving her mother through Alzheimer’s makes clear to her “the genius of Christianity,” a suffering God with “a good memory” of confusion, loneliness and other pain.

This vision of an ever-present God acquainted with grief is one of the “spectacular gifts” that Walker believes could only come to her through her experience with her mother’s illness. Through its lens she can also see the many gifts of grace and mercy given to her relationships, such as the intimacy and appreciation she reaches with her sister as a result of their difficult caretaker years. Even Alzheimer’s can be a means of finding resolution and deepening faith–a means of spiritual transfiguration.

This vision of God is also what makes The Geography of Memory more than a book to be read only by those with a direct experience of, or particular interest in, dementia. Instead it can be read by all those looking for honest, tender and luminously written evidence that, as Walker says, “in spite of suffering, our universe is ordered by a force that’s not chance, not brutality, not evil, but goodness.”

(Originally published in the December 23 edition of the Christian Courier)

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