Mother’s loss to dementia inspires personal essay collection

Edmonton writer Myrl Coulter uses the personal essay to explore the passage of time and the loss of her mother to a rare form of dementia.  Her book, A Year of Days, is published by University of Alberta Press, which is fitting as Coulter has a PhD from the U of A, where she taught English for eight years. Coulter recently talked online with Lynne Van Luven about her new book and the personal essay. She will be in Victoria for the Creative NonFiction Collective’s 11th annual conference, April 24 to 26. 

Myrl, perhaps because I have a father suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, my favorite chapter in your book is “Death by Dementia,” in which you trace the way Primary Progressive Aphasia robbed your mother of her words and, eventually, her life. Can you talk a little more about how you regard the connection between language and personality?

Of course, the connection between language and personality is intimate. One of the primary ways personality develops is through language. My mother, like everyone, had her own language patterns and quirks. As she deteriorated, she lost her nouns and then her verbs and eventually her entire sentence structure. But even at the end, her unique language personality was still there. One phrase I particularly remember is “boy, oh boy,” a vague saying she used all her life. In her last years, she came to rely on it when she was no longer able to string words together in a sentence. Whenever I heard her say “boy, oh boy,” it took me back and I’d think about the different times I’d heard her use that phrase over the years.

Beyond language, personality is also evident in non-verbal ways. When dementia progresses and language skills deteriorate, body language is still visible. Much of my mom’s personality was present even when many of her words were gone. I knew she was still in there, just by the shrug of her shoulders or the look on her face.

Because your book is organized into 15 personal essays that explore the passing of a calendar year, readers might think you wrote the book in a year. How much time passed between your eulogy for your mother’s funeral and the final publication of A Year of Days? I guess what I am asking is how long did it take you to be able to write about your mother as a person no longer physically present?

Considering the slow process of traditional book publishing, this one came together quickly – it was less than four years from my mother’s funeral to publication. After writing the eulogy, I knew I needed to write more about her. But in the year after her death, I read much more than I wrote. I read books about emotion and loneliness and holidays and the human brain. I doodled around the internet a lot. I spent time in libraries and coffee shops. I walked miles and miles.

The essay “Wearing Black” came first, inspired by the eulogy. I took it to the Banff Centre’s Writing With Style workshop in the spring of 2012. Then I began to see a structural shape, so I wrote out a Table of Contents and a plan, which I used to apply again to the Banff Centre. I was accepted into the Wired Writing Studio, where I had the great good fortune to work with Charlotte Gill. After that, it didn’t take me long to write the first draft, less than a year.

The days in my book come from the cycle of a single year, but I go to many different years in these essays. The title refers to the days that come around year after year. As time goes by, we experience those days differently, with hope and anticipation when we’re younger, with nostalgia and yearning as we get older.

You talk about visiting your mother and watching her sitting silently, staring at her hands. You write, “I tried to imagine my brain leaking words, tried to feel what it would be like to have the lake of my vocabulary draining a paragraph or two at a time through some unseen puncture in my head.” You say the questions you asked yourself about your mother’s loss of language made you afraid. Can you talk a little more about what you meant by that?

That’s a big one. Fear like that is hard to manage because it’s not rational. When a dementia-related condition strikes a family member, irrational fear is almost inevitable. And it increases as the patient deteriorates. Mine has abated now because I’ve realized that I’m not my mother, that she had her destiny and I have mine. But while I watched her language skills disintegrate, I felt vulnerable to her fate, especially because Alzheimer’s had already claimed my aunt, my mother’s older sister. Every time I hesitated in a sentence or had to search my brain for a word I couldn’t find, I’d think, “Oh crap this is it. It’s started. I’m a goner.” It got so bad that I mentioned it to my doctor. When I told her I was worried about my brain, she said, “Well, Myrl, you are writing books. I think you’re okay for now.” I’m deeply grateful for that simple rational statement. It was, and is, so calming.

As my parents age, I have been reading dozens of books about the aging process, about the loss of capacity induced by dementia-like illness, and I have been thinking a lot about the issue of physician-assisted suicide.  Did your family ever discuss that incredibly potent topic during your mother’s decline?

No. Not once. Never even thought about it. My mother denied her diagnosis vehemently, so that would have been an impossible conversation for our family. Still, I’ve followed assisted suicide cases closely, especially the Gillian Bennett story last summer. I admire how she and her family handled their situation. But every case is different because every family has its own dynamics. There is no blueprint here, no step-by-step prescriptive we can apply generally. That’s what’s so hard about these dementia conditions. Families have to find their own way through the maze. Dementia care options must be made more elastic, more adaptable to individual cases, and perhaps most of all, more available when needed. Families need choices. Our health and geriatric care system isn’t where it yet needs to be in this area.

I am interested to learn aspects of the personal essay drew you to it, as a vehicle of grieving for your mother. More precisely, how does the process we now call life-writing, wherein one explores a private dilemma, evolve into the creation of polished essays which move beyond the purely personal into ruminations one can share publicly?

The purely personal is diary-writing, journal-keeping: it’s therapy, a helpful tool long prescribed by counsellors and psychologists. This kind of writing is good for healing and recovery, but not for publication.

Personal life-writing for publication is the result of craft. It takes work, research and time. The successful personal essay has resonance, is driven by curiosity, a need to discover, a quest for connection. It expands beyond the writer’s life, examines social and cultural contexts, creates links readers can identify with. My first book is a memoir, but I wrote each of its chapters as personal essays that would build a memoir story. In this one, I wanted to avoid the memoir shape, so I set out to use as many different versions of the personal essay as I could. It’s such a flexible form to work in. If it were a visual art form, it would be classified as multi-media because personal essays use many different elements and take on a wide variety of structures. Some chapters in A Year of Days are linear and others are braided. Some build to revelations that came during the writing flow. Others follow questions I had in my head. The opening essay is a taxonomic exercise that illustrates the impossibility of categorizing emotions. The next is a straightforward travel story. One is a process essay shaped loosely as a recipe; another is about the many ways to cross a bridge. Some are anecdotal and some have lyric qualities (I hope). For each one, I picked a topic and usually ended up writing about it and something else. That’s the beauty of the personal essay – it’s not bound by the topic or the self. Its movement is outward.

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