All at once their bodies seem to weaken and wither before us. It is an unmistakable truth, revealed in the slight tremor of a once-steady hand or one thought too many that flails and falls without meaning, without completion.
If we are fortunate enough to have our parents with us into our adulthood, we will inevitably witness the unsettling sight of their aging. In a society intoxicated by all that is youthful and healthy, there remains something particularly harsh about the ebb of our parents' lives. Aging is a carnival mirror distorting our precious images, making the crevices and chinks in their seemingly impenetrable armor suddenly visible.
To John Daniel, his mother, Zilla, was "as tough as lobster shell, as solid as New England granite, lively as the wind." She was a labor organizer, and her iconoclastic life eventually led her on adventures around the world. But that was before time began to have its way with her, complicating even such small tasks as balancing her checkbook or negotiating the stairs with a bag of groceries.
By the time Zilla Daniel moved in with her son and his wife, in 1988, she was in the early stages of Alzheimer's disease. Looking After is John Daniel's elegiac chronicle of the last four years of his mother's life. Heartfelt yet unsentimental, it is a frank and enthralling memoir of life and loss, by an adult child experiencing the burdens—and blessings—of caring for an aging, ailing parent.
Well into her 70s, Zilla Daniel maintained an active life. A descendent of suffragists, she lived alone in Maine tending her garden, rowing her boat off Naskeag Point and working as a magazine proofreader. Unlike her husband—who died at 72, after four excessive decades of cigarettes and alcohol—Zilla took care of herself by eating healthy, quitting smoking and limiting her drinking.
Not that Zilla was one to plan ahead. She thought as far in the future as the next day, confident that the gods would somehow provide. She existed with a stubborn nonchalance, and the passing years hardly seemed reason enough to change. Hence, she fiercely denied illness and aging: at 78, she flew off to India for a two-month spiritual journey.
It wasn't till she returned that Daniel began to notice signs of deterioration. His mother was suffering from a staph infection in her leg, but there was something greater amiss. As she recovered in Daniel's home—a harbinger of things to come—he noticed a certain sparkle had faded. There were mental lapses. Her breathing would become labored during a walk. And for the first time, as she moved, she leaned on her son's arm for support.
"Zilla Daniel was supposed to be strong. She was supposed to take care of herself," writes Daniel, a poet and essayist. "She was supposed to be leading her independent and presumably happy life three thousand miles away on the coast of Maine—where I could visit her once in a while…and then leave, knowing that my mother was living the life she wanted to live and was doing just fine."
She did return to Maine, but within a year Daniel would realize his mother could no longer live away from the watchful eyes of her family. Even moving her into a efficiency apartment near his Portland, Oregon, home would not provide enough supervision; eventually, Zilla would move into an upstairs bedroom in her son's home.
Daniel never portrays himself as a saint. He never masks his impatience or the fraying of his nerves. Yet his selfishness is abundantly human as he wonders why he has been thrust into this caregiver's role. Nor does he polish the most intimate and stark details, even devoting an entire chapter to the process of bathing his mother.
"She wasn't the least self-conscious about baring her body in my presence, but something in me shrank from it. To be with her in her nakedness seemed too intimate for a grown son," he begins. "It seemed an indignity, and it touched an open wound. I had no child to bathe, to make faces at, to splash and laugh with. Most likely I never would. What I had was a frail and failing old woman who couldn't take a shower on her own."
As that passage makes clear, Daniel and his wife, while tending Zilla, had their own dramas to contend with, primarily their frustrating attempts to conceive a child. Daniel also suffered serious bouts with depression, certainly exacerbated by his mother's failing health.
At first it may seem a little odd that Looking After continues for some 50 pages after Zilla's death. But then this extraordinary, lyrical book is more than the coda to a life well-lived. It is also about Daniel learning to live in a world without his mother, and finding solace in the bonds forged between a mother and son during her difficult final years.
"I appreciate now what a privilege it was," Daniel writes. "I wish I'd seen it more clearly at the time. We don't get to choose our privileges, and the ones that come to us aren't often the ones we would choose, and each of them is as much burden as joy. But they do come, and it's important to know them for what they are."
January 5, 1997
What happens when the child becomes the caretaker of the parent? When his mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer's in 1988, John Daniel, a poet, essayist, and environmental journalist living in Oregon, found himself living the answer to that question. Unable to look after herself, Daniel's mother moved in with Daniel and his wife; this book is an account of what followed, as well as a diary of the author's struggle with depression and his attempts to come to terms with a fragmented childhood. Though frank about the nature of Alzheimer's and how it eats away at identity, Daniel finds moments of poetry in his mother's experience of the disease. One morning she encounters a nectarine: "It was an especially colorful fruit, its rich yellow shading into orange and a large splotch of deep purple….She stared disbelievingly, her mouth agape. She seemed horrified. 'Is it corrupt?' she said….My mother may have been seeing in that moment as Van Gogh or Blake must have seen. She was not looking at a thing. She was in a presence. Very little was just a nectarine to my mother, and in a way this was the triumph of her late life.'
Review by John Moat
John Daniel's writing in this book is so good it's an event in itself. At once narrative and contemplative, unintrusive and grainily idiosyncratic. It reminds me of the writing of another American poet and essayist, Loren Eiseley, in its demonstrating how when eye, ear, and heart are singly and exactly responsive to detail the vision divines a way of being that is deeply ecological.
Towards the end John Daniel describes how as he's listening to Beethoven something startling occurs. "The slow movement in Beethoven is always my favorite, when he wins through his despondencies and turbulent triumphs to the blessed interval, that timeless transitory moment when the soul knows itself and needs no more. Writing scarcely can touch that moment…" I suspect John Daniel of a modest form of immodesty, because several times in the book he manages, on both his own and his mother's account, to achieve just that.