The Bookworm: Experiencing the slide – Dealing with dementia

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“Who Asked You?”

By Terry McMillan

c. 2013, Viking

$27.95/$29.50 Canada

383 pages

You can’t fix everything. That’s a hard lesson to learn, no matter who you are. You can’t swoop in and make things right when they’re not yours to correct. You can’t throw money at something to make it go away, there are some issues that can’t be mended, and you surely can’t fix stupid.

You can, however, try to lessen the impact of life gone wrong and in the new book “Who Asked You?” by Terry McMillan, you can also remember that potential fixes might take awhile.

Betty Jean had her hands full. Her husband, Lee David, had dementia and spent his days watching TV in the bedroom and sleeping. It wasn’t his fault but these days, Betty Jean could barely remember why she ever loved him.

Their children might as well have had brain problems, too: Dexter was in prison; Quentin had distanced himself from the ‘hood as soon as he was able; and daughter Trinetta was an addict with two little boys that seemed to be at Betty Jean’s house more than they were at their own.

To say that Betty Jean was overwhelmed was an understatement, although she had some help. Her next door neighbor and best friend, Tammy, was always able to pitch in and Betty Jean had hired Nurse Kim to help with Lee David. Those two women were a lot of comfort, which was good because Betty Jean’s sisters, Venetia and Arlene, were worthless in that department. Venetia couldn’t leave her church out of any conversation and Arlene was just a nasty woman, overall.

Yep, Betty Jean often felt like she was running in place a feeling made worse when Trinetta left her kids with her mother and disappeared. Raising two young kids wasn’t what Betty Jean wanted, but Luther and Ricky didn’t ask for it, either.

Yet somehow, they’d manage. They were family, after all, and that’s what family did: they ignored bad blood and bad advice, gossiped about one another, did what needed doing, circled wagons, and muddled through.

Fixing life, and everybody’s problems, wouldn’t be easy but then, what was?

Right away, from Page One, you know that “Who Asked You?” is going to be a lot of fun to read. Betty Jean is a woman with keen sarcasm, not quite beaten down by life but close! yet still managing to keep a fingernail-hold on a sense of humor.

She’s the best of author Terry McMillan’s signature-cast of strong women characters, but Betty Jean’s not the only. Each woman here is a great surprise, from Nurse Kim to the Social Worker who makes a cameo, but very important, appearance. Not to be ignored, the men in this book round out the story perfectly. I found plenty of burst-out-laughing moments here, some I-didn’t-see-that-coming gasps, and I loved it.

If you’re looking for a little escape this weekend, or confirmation that your life isn’t so bad after all, then here’s the novel you want. “Who Asked You?” is fun, and it’s a book you should be fixin’ to read.

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“Knocking on Heaven’s Door: The Path to a Better Way of Death”

By Katy Butler

c. 2013, Scribner

$25/$28.99 Canada

322 pages

Your mind’s made up. There’s no going back once you’ve made a choice between Door Number One or Door Number Two. You’re not a waffler, you weighed pros and cons, and you’re confident you picked correctly. Or not.

Indeed, the worst part about making a decision can be the regret that’s possible at the end of the choice. And in the new book “Knocking on Heaven’s Door” by Katy Butler, a seemingly no-brainer decision tears a family apart.

Jeff Butler cheated death many times. As a child, he narrowly missed dying in a car accident. In World War II, he lost an arm, but not his life. And in November 2001, at age 79, he suffered a stroke that nearly killed him. A year later, he received a pacemaker.

And that, says his daughter Katy, kept him alive but didn’t “prevent his slide into dementia, incontinence, near-muteness, misery, and helplessness.”

Jeff and his wife Val were forward thinkers. He was a college professor. She was a perfectionist with fierce drive. They had been “in control of their lives, and they did not expect to lose control of their deaths.”

But that’s exactly what happened: as Jeff’s health continued to decline, his abilities dwindled and his cognizance weakened all of which he was aware. He indicated dismay at his diminished life and said that he’d “unfortunately” lived too long.

On the other side of the country, Katy Butler worried. She’d always been closer to her father than to her mother, but arguments and old hurts continued to sting. Still, she flew home to Connecticut to help because she was, after all, their daughter statistically, the one who bore the brunt of parenting a parent.

But as Jeff’s dementia worsened, so did Val’s tolerance and her health. She was “stoic,” but impatient, snappish and exhausted, and only accepted outside help when she became overwhelmed. Butler says she knew her mother “clouted” her father, and shouted at him in frustrated anger.

By this time, Butler was convinced that the pacemaker her father had wasn’t the medical miracle it was meant to be. And she learned that pacemakers could be turned off

So much went through my mind as I read this beautiful, emotionally brutal book.

With sorrow, grace, and growing exasperation, author Katy Butler writes of her father’s long, messy death; her mother’s quiet, dignified passing; and the parallel story of how modern medicine, drug companies, and government rules promoted the former.

That’s a lot of hard reading, made gentler with Butler’s Buddhist values and serenity. And yet, it’s not easy to avoid outrage as she points out the unfairness of aging, the cruelty of physical decline, and the knowledge that those and the surety of caretaking are somewhat inevitable for many Baby Boomers today.

This is a stunning book, truthful and its dignified, and it could be a conversation-starter. If there’s a need for that in your family or if you only want to know what could await you then read “Knocking on Heaven’s Door.” You won’t regret it.

The Bookworm is Terri Schlichenmeyer. She has been reading since she was 3 years old and never goes anywhere without a book. Terri lives on a hill in Wisconsin with two dogs and 11,000 books.

© 2013 All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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