My dad’s father is the third of my grandparents to be diagnosed with dementia. I sit next to him in the car as he drives us to brunch, today, and wonder for how much longer I’ll be able to do this. He still remembers how to drive; how to eat; who I am. Someday, none of these things will be true.
I see signs that he’s forgetting more all the time. He makes pages of notes full of things to remember to tell me, and as he’s going over the list he forgets that two minutes ago, he told me the things on it. A pile of six items to be sorted on his desk can become an hours-long shuffle. Last week, he left me a voicemail from my “Uncle Johnny!” Right now, his situation simply requires reminders and patience. I know that eventually, it will be heartbreaking. “I’m forgetting things,” he told me recently. “I don’t know–pretty soon maybe I won’t know what’s going on at all.” He sounded a little embarrassed, and a little afraid. “It’s OK Grandpa,” I told him. “I know you’re in there. I know you’re still you. I still love you.” His voice cracked as he answered, “You’d BETTER.”
A complimentary advanced reader copy of this book was provided by Atria Books in exchange for an honest review. (Thank you!) My review was in no way influenced by this consideration.
And Every Morning the Way Home Gets Longer and Longer was originally not intended for publication. Backman, an author who is watching someone he loves enter these same stages, used writing to grapple with the concept of what it’s like to slowly forget everything that matters, to be aware (sometimes) that you are forgetting, and the difficulty, as a family member, of watching someone you love begin to lose his mind–lose you. The tale unfolds beautifully, written in evocative prose. Much of the story takes place in the grandfather’s mind, where he’s more freely able to interact with those he loves (alive or dead) and begin to understand what’s happening, away from the constraints of the outside world. Interactions in the external world are shared with us less often, and when they are the timeline is sometimes jumbled and confusing. This is done purposefully, to mimic Grandpa’s loss of time and place and sometimes people.
“I’m constantly reading a book with a missing page, and it’s always the most important one.”
I loved how Backman wove in particular themes and elements to tie things together, even as the setting and timeline jumped from place to place. In this way, he allowed us to see the emotional connection happening between the characters and helped us to understand the depth of their bond. My only real complaint with the book was that a couple of these elements seemed underdeveloped, particularly near the end of the story, which left me feeling a bit unsatisfied. I wanted a little more with the guitar, in particular, and I wanted to understand a bit more about Ted. Overall, however, I felt it was a tender and thoughtful examination of love, patience, and caregiving.
Favorite Quote: “Almost all grown adults walk around full of regret over a good-bye they wish they’d been able to go back and say better. Our good-bye doesn’t have to be like that, you’ll be able to keep redoing it until it’s perfect.”
When I saw my mother’s dad for the last time, he couldn’t remember me. He sat silently in a chair in the kitchen, staring vacantly into space while I visited with my grandmother. It distressed me to see him–a man who had always been so congenial–entirely unengaged in or unaware of the conversation. His usually twinkling eyes had gone flat. His jovial mind had betrayed him. Though I knew he wouldn’t recognize me, I went to the kitchen before we left and sat with him for a few moments. I knew he didn’t know me, but I wanted him to feel that I knew him. As we left, I gave him a hug and whispered in his ear, “Grandpa? I love you.” His eyes lit up with a flicker of the innocent joy I’d always known. “You do?” he asked, excitedly. Fighting back tears, I reached out a hand to cradle his soft, weathered cheek and answered, “Of course I do.”
Six weeks later, he was gone. I think we got it just right.