Caring for a parent who has Alzheimer's disease can be numbing, frustrating and sometimes unexpectedly illuminating, as part-time Vermonter Judith Levine showed in her memoir Do You Remember Me? Poet and artist Deanna Shapiro of Ferrisburgh is another writer who's used her talent to shed light on one of life's darker passages. She chronicles the last year of her 92-year-old mother's life in a book called Conver-sations at the Nursing Home: A Mother, a Daughter and Alzheimer's, recently published by small Georgia poetry press PRA Publishing.
Shapiro's mother, New Yorker Ruth Tornberg Klein, moved into Middlebury's Helen Porter Healthcare and Rehabilitation Center in the summer of 2004; she died a year later. A brain autopsy revealed Alzheimer's, but a staff member quoted in the book describes Klein's dementia as intermittent with intervals of lucidity.
In a series of short, free verse poems, Shapiro relates her 70 visits to a woman who becomes increasingly divorced from reality, attacking staff members and residents. Yet even as she hallucinates, the poet's mother continues to read avidly and make articulate, sometimes bitingly satirical, comments on the world around her. She tries to suss out whether the Jews in the nursing home are treated differently - not realizing, her daughter tells us, that "she is the only Jew here." She critiques her caregivers and mocks her doctor's receptionist: "If she wasn't blonde / she wouldn't have a job." And, most poignantly, Klein notes the "weirdness" of a health center where sick people can eat sugary treats because they aren't expected to get well: "There's no control here. / Nobody gets better. Nobody gets discharged / . . . / They just stay. They just go on and on."
Shapiro has been giving public readings and talks about the "gifts" of her last months with her mother. The experience taught her patience and acceptance, she explains in a phone interview. "By that I mean accepting the reality of the illness, always being proactive on behalf of the person, but accepting the reality of the everyday. You learn to live in the moment, the small pleasures. With my mother, it was her humor." Shapiro says she's also grateful for "the opportunity to understand better end-of-life experiences, because we're all going to the same place eventually, and our society does not prepare us well for that."
Proceeds from the book are being donated to the Alzheimer's Association. Shapiro says her talks have given her a chance to benefit from hearing other people's stories: "There seems to be a real commonality of understanding what it's like to take care of an elderly parent, which is newer to our generation, I believe. Our grandparents didn't live to such an old age." She invites readers to share their own experiences on her website, www.deannashapiro.net.
Conversations at the Nursing Home is available online and at the Vermont Book Shop in Middlebury and The Flying Pig Children's Books in Shelburne for $12.95. Shapiro reads from the book and discusses her experiences at The Arbors in Shelburne on January 24, 2 p.m. and 6 p.m., as well as at the Charlotte Senior Center on March 7 at 1 p.m.