Cover image for Death in slow motion : my mother's descent into Alzheimer's
Death in slow motion : my mother's descent into Alzheimer's
Cooney, Eleanor.
Personal Author:
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : HarperCollins, [2003]

Physical Description:
251 pages ; 24 cm
Personal Subject:
Format :


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RC523.2 .C665 2003 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks
RC523.2 .C665 2003 Adult Non-Fiction Open Shelf

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Azheimer's is death in slow motion," says Eleanor Cooney in this jarring and unsentimental memoir about caring for her mother, "and it has the ability to kill love while the person you love still breathes."

When it was all but certain that her once-glamorous and witty novelist-mother had Alzheimer's, 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, of the powerful bond the two shared, and her own descent into drink and despair.

"She was always my favorite person," says Eleanor, "hip, cool, brilliant, funny, sane -- my ultimate confidante and sympathizer." Now, overwhelmed by the Chinese water torture of endless small worries, endlessly repeated, that dementia thrusts on victim and caregiver, Cooney resorts to booze, tranquilizers, and gallows wit to blunt the edges of the relentless loss and the demands of ministering to this devastating disease.

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 dead 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.

Deeply moving, shockingly honest, and framed by wounded love, Cooney's tale reveals in remorseless prose the true nature of the beast called Alzheimer's, and with it, the arcane processes of the writer's craft and of a splendid mind's disintegration. "Alzheimer's," Cooney writes, "you'll never be the same once it's paid you a visit."

Author Notes

Eleanor Cooney has published four novels. She lives in Mendocino, California

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

Cooney's angry and unsparing look at the devastating effects of Alzheimer's disease on a loved one and the havoc it wreaks on the immediate caregivers is made all the more poignant by the fact that the victim is her mother, the novelist Mary Durant. Cooney and Durant's bond was very strong; they truly liked one another and were very close friends. Durant was glamorous and witty, and she didn't suffer fools or anyone else's foolishness, for that matter, gladly. Cooney lets us slowly witness her mother's mental functions disintegrate, and she pulls no punches in depicting the painful process of the parent becoming the child and the child the parent. Of course, Cooney, a novelist herself, is a terrific writer. Though her subject matter is bleak, her book is neither sentimental nor depressing. Indeed, she leavens her grief with black humor. Despite the inevitable outcome, readers will want to see what happens next. Consider it a must-read for those dealing with a loved one's Alzheimer's. --June Sawyers

Publisher's Weekly Review

"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. (Feb.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

Cooney has explored ancient China in novels like The Court of the Lion, but here she considers a current reality: her own novelist-mother's incapacitation by Alzheimer's. You may have spotted an excerpt in Harper's Folio section. (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



Death in Slow Motion My Mother's Descent into Alzheimer's Chapter one God Is a Murderer September: About eleven months since we moved my mother to California to live with us, I wake at dawn from queasy dreams where I'm sliding down steep slimy banks of mucky pools or flying in a crowded flimsy airplane being pulled to earth by heavy gravity or searching for lost kittens in a dank primeval forest. The morning light is gray and hopeless; I hear my mother's feet outside shuffling like the Swamp Thing across the driveway to get her morning paper. Her presence pulls umbilically at my gut. I gulp a Valium and burrow under the blankets, my body stiff with fear and fatigue, head throbbing from too much wine the night before. Though the room is still, I can feel acceleration in my stomach, my bed a rollercoaster car just cresting and starting its plunge, but the acceleration is not of motion, it's of time, warp-speeding me into my own old age and decrepitude. The thoughts that seethe around in my brain are pornographically mortal. They shock even me. Whoever said love is stronger than death was full of malarkey. There's no contest. Death is a sumo wrestler, and it slams love to the mat every time. When my mother's husband died twelve years ago, her own life was pretty much sucked out of her, though she still walks and talks. I loved Mike, too. Let me give you some advice: Unless you have deep religious faith (I have none at all) or objective detachment bordering on the abnormal, don't read the autopsy report of someone you loved. I peeked at a few pages of Mike's, and regret it. There are no euphemisms there. Bone saws and steel buckets will remind you just how strong death really is. And death's warm-up act, Alzheimer's, is no less a brute. You'll never be the same once it's paid you a visit -- believe me. Just a short time ago, I was ignorant. I'd heard stories, of course, but like winning the lottery or going to prison or being abducted by aliens, you just can't know how it is until you've lived it. Now I know. Alzheimer's is death in slow motion, and it has the ability to kill love while the person you love still breathes. My mother was always my favorite person. And a lot of other people's, too. Hip, cool, brilliant, funny, sane. A writer. My ultimate confidante and sympathizer. Not like the other mothers. My friends always came to my house to escape their regular boring (or crazy) parents. I have a picture of me and a bunch of teenaged friends one summer in the mid-sixties cavorting in the backyard of the house in Connecticut, my mother sitting in our midst in a canvas chair, slim elegant blue-jeaned legs crossed, laughing. We're all free and easy, horsing around, performing for her. She's in her early forties, beautiful, probably a year or so away from meeting Mike. She was born in 1922. The first shadows fell around 1997 with blanks in her short-term retention and disquietingly uncharacteristic lapses in judgment. It's plain to us now that she struggled to hide it for a couple of years. She's graduated to delusions and disorientation and now some long-term memory loss, too. My mother's been severely, profoundly depressed since Mike's death, and I believe that this was the cause of her mental deterioration. I don't have hard, irrefutable clinical evidence that this is so -- it's just what I know. I believe protracted despair weakened her, changed the physical structure of her brain, made her vulnerable to the disease. Chronic sorrow is a parasite. It eats your strength, appropriates your will, moves like toxic sludge through every system of the mind and body. And my theory is not so farfetched. Everyone knows that depression compromises the immune system. Look at the statistics on cancer survival and mental health. How often do we hear about couples dying within weeks or days of each other? Alzheimer's is still a mystery, but they're slowly finding things out. Recent research points to an autoimmune disorder -- an inflammation of the brain. So there it is. I think grief literally burned out the circuits of my mother's brain. And it did it in a sly, self-serving way that points to itself as the culprit: It robbed her of her wit, intellect, judgment and competence, but it made sure its own pathways were sturdy and intact. She forgot everything, but she didn't forget her grief. It stayed vital, grew stronger, gathered momentum. If I'm completely wrong, and my mother was going to lose her memory even if Mike hadn't died, her illness would not have taken the form that it did, fueled by heartache and vodka, shaped by desolation. None of this would have happened. But Mike did die. And it did happen. In mid-November 1989, late in the afternoon, my mother and brother and I filed into the Intensive Care Unit of a major San Diego hospital. We stood in awe around Mike's bed. He was just coming out of the anesthesia after a major and radical six-hour operation where they'd opened up his chest and put him on a heart-lung machine. This had not been bypass surgery or anything else we've all heard of. This was such a rare, specialized and risky procedure that only two hospitals in the country performed it. I'd never seen an I.C.U. before. It was a temple of mystery with its hushed atmosphere, brilliant lights and stupefyingly sophisticated technology, Mike's bed the altar where human sacrifices were offered to a perverse deity with a jaded appetite. Mike struggled to focus. He grasped at our hands. My mother kissed him and spoke in his ear. He'd made it. All of us, Mike included, thought that if he died it would be on the table. But he'd come through and opened his eyes. He was out of danger. Wrong. Death in Slow Motion My Mother's Descent into Alzheimer's . Copyright © by Eleanor Cooney. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold. Excerpted from Death in Slow Motion: My Mother's Descent into Alzheimer's by Eleanor Cooney All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

Table of Contents

Mary Durant
1 God Is a Murdererp. 1
2 The Serpent's Toothp. 12
3 The Undeadp. 23
4 The Belly of the Beastp. 37
5 Heart of Glassp. 49
6 The Big Bangp. 62
7 Wicked, Wicked Waysp. 72
8 Our Townp. 81
9 Judas Risingp. 100
10 Thin Icep. 115
11 Shiva, the Destroyerp. 129
12 Hungry Ghostsp. 141
13 Arsenicp. 151
14 Old Lacep. 158
15 Cry Me a Riverp. 179
16 Sunset, Children ...p. 199
Epilogue: The Hotel Californiap. 223
Appendix "The Scouts"p. 239