When her once-glamorous and witty novelist-mother got Alzheimer's, Eleanor Cooney moved her from her beloved Connecticut home to California in order to care for her. In tense, searing prose, punctuated with the blackest of humor, Cooney documents the slow erosion of her mother's mind, the powerful bond the two shared, and her own descent into drink and despair.
But the coping mechanism that finally serves this eloquent writer best is writing, the ability to bring to vivid life the memories her mother is losing. As her mother gropes in the gathering darkness for a grip on the world she once loved, succeeding only in conjuring sad fantasies of places and times with her late husband, Cooney revisits their true past. Death in Slow Motion becomes the mesmerizing story of Eleanor's actual childhood, straight out of the pages of John Cheever; the daring and vibrant mother she remembers; and a time that no longer exists for either of them.
"Whoever said love was 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.