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Death in Slow Motion: My Mother's Descent into Alzheimer's Hardcover – January 21, 2003
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From Publishers Weekly
"Whoever said love is stronger than death was full of malarkey," comments Cooney, setting the forthright tone early in this honest account of taking care of a parent with Alzheimer's. In 1997, Cooney (The Court of the Lion: A Novel of the T'Ang Dynasty) and her companion, Mitch, both freelance writers, moved Cooney's 75-year-old mother, novelist Mary Durant, from her home in Connecticut to live near them in Northern California when it became clear that her mother's short-term memory was failing. A great admirer and loving daughter of her elegant, witty mother, Cooney suffered from terrible grief because she could not protect her mother from encroaching dementia. Durant's metamorphosis into a dependent, childlike hypochondriac occurred some years after the death of her husband. Cooney vividly describes the everyday physical and emotional stresses on her and Mitch, once her mother moved in with them, and highlights the lack of available resources for Alzheimer's patients who are not independently wealthy. Cooney and Mitch missed writing deadlines, began to drink heavily and nearly ended their relationship. When they could no longer manage her mother at home, Cooney placed her in several unpleasant assisted living residences, until Cooney managed to find her a reasonable place. A short story by Mary Durant is appended to this well-written, harrowing memoir.
Copyright 2002 Reed Business Information, Inc.
From Library Journal
Cooney has explored ancient China in novels like The Court of the Lion, but here she considers a current reality: her own novelist-mother's incapacitation by Alzheimer's.
Copyright 2002 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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Ms. Cooney's transcribes her relationship with her mother in such a way that you know she loves and adores her but, can no longer live with her. There's where the emotional pulls rear their heads and taunt the author into at least having some responsibility to care for her beloved diseased parent whose identity has forever been damaged to the point of hopelessness. How does one live with the responsibility of caring for someone that is so damaged that to be near that individual, ruins any semblance of normal daily activity. Where does one set aside one's conscious while running as far away as possible in order to even just function? These human pulls exist all over the writing with no exit here or there. There is none. In keeping one's own life functioning on the barest level still leaves the so-called provider with no tools to cope. All natural intelligence does not provide any answers nor does it provide an ounce of forgiveness for not sticking around to get destroyed. It is a no-win-all-lost situation. Death is only a physical relief. The responsibility remains for the life of the provider and certainly in her memory. It will however, remain in the memory of the thousands of readers who have read "death in slow motion!"
Her unflinching exploration of the membrane between life and death gives this book its edge. Ultimately, the reader is invited to simply buckle in to be entertained by some great late-night storytelling and, on this journey, tragedies are deftly described and relieved with cool splashes of humor and wit. Her mother's fascinating mind and history are vividly rendered. We quickly come to trust both the author and her characters. I laughed aloud many times, a rarity for me, and relished Ms Cooney's sharp eye for the macabre.
This is a very, very generous book. The story is told with chest-tearing openness, perfectly in sync with what's being revealed. Those struggling to care for someone with Alzheimer's will find an empathetic voice in Ms Cooney. Those who have yet to encounter it probably won't buy this book, but those who do will find it offers an excellent tool for helping to navigate any one of life's myriad relationships. It takes a brave and skilled author to write such a book, to share the depths of her mother's and her own frailty and to reveal what it means to be human, outrageous and tender, inside and out, honestly sharing and thoroughly loving.
For me, that devastation came in watching my mother suffer physical deterioration as she fought against metastatic breast cancer. I remember every detail of our last couple conversations and wince in pain when I think of her weary eyes as she confessed to me in one of our last conversations, "I just want to fall asleep and never wake up again." But there were good moments too - like when a bird landed nearby as we sat on her rural California deck. "What's that?" I asked her, having long ago taught her all the native birds. "A titmouse," she replied. "I still remember everything you taught me."
Ah yes, memories. Towards the end of my mother's life, I pried her memories, desperately trying to capture every little tidbit about her life. Even on that last day of her life, I showed her photos from the family album, and asked her to share her remembrances. The thought of losing her mind, her memories, our common experiences, was the most frightening thing to me.
I've been thinking a lot about my mother's death lately, as I have been reading Eleanor Cooney's masterful memoir, Death in Slow Motion, and I realize how lucky I was to be able to capture memories from my mother during those final weeks. Eleanor wasn't so fortunate: her mother, a vibrant, intelligent author (Mary Durant), ending up dying a slow, torturous, dignity-shredding death from Alzheimer's disease. Many years before her body died, Durant lost her ability to store and retrieve memories, her personality disintegrating before Cooney's eyes. Can anything be more terrifying?
One of the things I most appreciate about Death In Slow Motion is Cooney's unflinching honesty about her own guilt, frailty, and regret in the way she handled her mother's decline. After initially trying to care for her mother herself, she realized the strain of being a primary caretaker was destroying both her relationship and her sanity. She turned to care homes for help and then was faced with intense guilt and regret when she discovered they weren't taking such great "care" after all. At one point, she looks at a photograph of her mother gazing up at her with trust in her eyes and contemplates how she shattered that trust, and - the guilt, the unimaginable guilt! Oh, how I know that guilty feeling - like the guilt I feel every time I think of my mother showing me her scraped knees that she suffered trying to walk down to the laundry room beneath the house only a couple of weeks before she died. Why wasn't I doing the laundry for her? Why did I let her down??? Oh, Regret - you merciless ghost!
That's not to say that Death In Slow Motion is a book of regret. Cooney spends a large amount of the book painting a vivid portrait of her younger mother as an intelligent, witty woman who lived, by and large, a full, inspiring, and happy life. Although early relationships were rocky, Durant found the love of her life when she met environmentalist Michael Harwood, with whom she researched and penned their masterpiece, On The Road with John James Audubon. However, Harwood's death at the age of just 55-years-old was a heartbreak that she could not overcome; this tragedy very likely hastened her decline. It actually came as a warped sort of blessing when Durant reached an advanced stage of dementia and no longer seemed tormented by constant thoughts of Harwood's death.
It may seem strange to say, but I didn't find Death In Slow Motion to be a depressing read, despite its subject matter. It's very sad, yes, but more than anything, I found the book inspiring. It's like a literary version of the old tombstone inscription:
Passenger stop as you pass by
As you are now, so once was I
As I am now, so you shall be
Prepare for death and follow me.
Stories like this remind us that life is short, the future is uncertain, and we should all do what makes us happy while our precious minds and limbs are still under our control.