Published: Sep 21, 2009
September 21 is World Alzheimer’s Day, and a good way to honor the occasion is to give a fine novel --- The Pleasure Was Mine --- to someone who is a caregiver to an Alzheimer patient.
Like many others, I have a personal connection to Alzheimer’s. Far too early, it took away my Aunt Josephine and her incomparable perogies, giving me a sense of the cruelty of a disease that steals not just house numbers and children’s names but hope, first from those who receive the diagnosis and then from caregivers --- like my Uncle Tony --- who endure a seemingly endless, thankless task.
The only reason I picked up “The Pleasure Was Mine” was professional: I had to read it for a PBS series I was producing. But I soon found myself in the grips of an emotional page-turner narrated by a kind of elder Huckleberry Finn. Prate, an 80-something house painter who is faced with the loss of his wife of 50 years, tells us just what is going on --- and why it hurts so bad. He does it with the kind of straight talk that tramples over the sentimental to get to the heart of love.
Prate would do anything for his beautiful, clever wife whom he continues to long for physically. His ardor --- and apparently hers --- is one of the threads that pulls this story forward. Even though he visits her every day, Irene forgets who he is. And yet she repeatedly asks him, “So when are we going to go to that place where we lie down together?”
As he recounts the tale of his ailing wife, Prate reflects back on their passionate connection. The sparks started on the front porch of Irene’s large family home which Prate was being paid to paint. And this attraction between opposites stuck. Both avid readers, their talk was always smart and honest. And the difference in social rank fueled the enticement.
In the context of Prate’s vivid sensual memories, readers also experience what it means to watch your loved one slide down Alzheimer’s hill of forgetting. Irene tries to get out of moving cars. Prate gets the 3 AM phone call from a neighbor in whose kitchen Irene happens to be sitting. And there are the day-to-day terrors as Prate witnesses the clouds of panic and joy passing over the face of his intelligent former schoolteacher wife.
Up against the real heartbreak in this book, there is poignant humor --- though it is never at anyone’s expense. On their first and only fishing expedition together, Prate’s grandson protests that he’s never fished before. Prate counters, “Well, the fish don’t know that.” When Prate tries to remind Irene of her identity by naming the important people in their shared life, she asks quizzically, “And who are you, a family tree?” As they sit in a tiny country church on their final lost weekend together, Irene nods to an image of Christ and tells her husband, “I don’t think he’s coming.”
Tommy Hays, the director of the Great Smokies Writers Program at the University of North Carolina at Asheville, kept a journal while his own mother took care of his Alzheimer’s-stricken father. At first the writing was too unwieldy and personal for a novel. But then the voice of a bright, gruff, yet kind uncle showed up on the page. A man of a few words, this is the uncle that always tells a little more truth in polite Southern society than others might want to hear.
The novel’s pacing is one of its seductions. Prate unfolds his story unhurriedly, with a Zen-like ease and grace. Even as hePrate witnesses love fade in the eyes of his beloved, he continues to remember everything about her that he adores --- and wonders what she ever saw in ”an old coot” like him.
“The Pleasure Was Mine” is a marvelously honest and moving book that somehow teases redemption out of the experience of Azlheimer’s disease. It is a paean, I think, to the sort of love Dylan Thomas had in mind when he wrote that wonderful line, “Love is the last light spoken.”
Lorraine Kreahling, a contributor to the New York Times, is writing “The Green Hotel”, about losing her house to explosion and fire and the community that helped her rebuild.
To read an excerpt of “The Pleasure Was Mine”, click here.
To buy “The Pleasure Was Mine” from Amazon.com, click here.
To buy the Kindle edition of “The Pleasure Was Mine” from Amazon.com, click here.