Blog to Memoir: Growing Up Alzheimer’s

Many people ask me if they can turn their blog posts into a book. Yes! I say, great idea.  Ultimately the book won’t and shouldn’t look like the blog post, but by God it can give you several chapters of raw to polished materials depending on how you like to write your blog posts. The great thing about blogs is you are often writing what is happening in the moment, so it is fresher, filled with details, feelings and passion that you may not get if you left it until later.  Certain parts of The Happy Hammock can be seen in past blog posts.

This blog post is going to be the first of a series that could be called learning by doing.  Ever since writing The Happy Hammockback which is really a memoir (although we called it a based on true story for a number of reasons), I have been helping others complete their memoirs more. Don’t think I don’t read other people’s teachings on how to write memoirs or go to their courses, I do. I am always researching. But, there is nothing like doing, as well as teaching, to make you feel like you can call yourself an expert.

While I am writing the second book of The Happy Hammock memoir, there is another aspect of my life that only those close to me know about. I want to write about it, and even need to write about it in the hopes it will help others. This is my family’s history of Alzheimer’s through three generations of women, as I have experienced it and continue to experience it. No, I have not been diagnosed with this disease myself, yet, but the signs have crept up to my eldest sister, nine years older than I, and tapped her on the shoulder.  So, this is the story I want to tell in these blog posts, as well as talking a little bit about the blog to book, or blog to memoir process.memoir-writing-process-steps-1-638

I am going to switch to italics for the memoir post part and stick to regular text for the writing process part. So, I am going to share my process, as far as I know it. This is how I often start, and how I started this time:

  1. I had an idea of writing about all three generations of women, my grandmother, mother and now, my eldest sister. This is painful because she is the sibling I am closest to and I am currently seeing her gradual sinking into the abyss that is Alzheimer’s as if it is the slowest of quick sand.
  2. I come up with a working title. Often I keep it but not always, but it does help keep me on track. The title for this: Growing Up Alzheimer’s.
  3. Then I write a list of scenes, events, stories, snatches of dialogue, images, thoughts, worries, interactions.
  4. I try to order the above in chronological order not because that is necessarily the way it will end up in a book form, but I need to know what order things come in. A memoir writer needs to pay attention to transitions for different periods in this the family history, and different stages of the writer’ awareness, and not confuse the reader.  Most people don’t realize that for books, or long-form anything (I started as a playwright), the art of transitions is EVERYTHING. But that comes later in the game. Now, blogging now, is about generating material.
  5. I start a scene that may or may not be the beginning of the book but is the beginning of a blog post. And so it begins…

Growing Up Alzheimer’s –  Post 1

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“Granny Horner is having a bird again.”

My eldest sister, age 14, almost a decade older than I, announces to us. My brother, second oldest, two years behind her, and my other sister, five years after him, and me, the baby, the unexpected love child, two years later, all rapidly exit the small lakeside house on Osoyoos Lake to stay out of the line of fire.  We love coming up to visit the lake, but Granny Horner, Marjorie, my mother’s mother, is sometimes hard to take, and Ralph, my grandfather, mostly blends into the background.

“Having a bird” as my siblings called it meant she was on a bitching rampage of unhappiness and blame. She can be loud and to me, at five years old, scary as hell. She’s skinny and doesn’t smile a lot. She is the opposite of “Nice Granny,” my father’s mother who we adore. Nice Granny is chubby-curvy, loving, generous, creative and everything you could want in a grandmother. Marjorie is not. And, I didn’t know her well. I remember in her lake house I found a beautiful colored tin, empty, probably once held fancy cookies. It had bright blues, reds and gold geometric and decorative designs like an Easter egg. And, it was a cylindrical tin with a dome top. Beautiful. My five year old self was attracted enough to pick it up and she caught me with my hands on it.

I was terrified that I was in trouble when she caught me handling the tin, afraid she was going to “have a bird,” but that didn’t happen. Instead she saw I was enamored with it and offered it to me. I took it home and for years kept all my tiny, shiny treasures in it, from thimbles to plastic animals to rhinestones that Nice Granny gave me. That was one of the few moments I remember Granny Horner distinctly, and thankfully it was a nice moment. She was then on the verge of Alzheimer’s, though we didn’t know it. 

husky gas osoyoosIt started when Ralph was moved, at the recommendation of his doctor, to a full care home. Ralph complained of pain in his legs and he had trouble walking.  After his death I would find several medals he had won for his long distance running.  I didn’t know, no one had told me he had once been an accomplished runner. Marjorie went to visit him every day. The problem was she would get lost driving there pretty much every time. My parents found this out later because the man at the gas station had to give her directions to the care home every day. Often, he had to do it more than once on the same day. My dad liked to tell the story how the gas station guy would send her off having showed her on the map and told her the turns only to see her minutes later driving back to the station in her old Ford still confounded.

Back then, they simply said, “She is losing her memory.” And so she was. I never heard anyone say the word Alzheimer’s. It wasn’t a common parlance then and this loss of memory wasn’t intensely studied. They just tried things out. When it was clear Marjorie also needed full time care they “tried things” on her too, namely electric shock treatment. Yes. Horrors. They did this to my Granny and my mother knew. They told her that after shock treatment she seemed to get better for a time and then reverted back.  How long she “got better” was not really discussed. This “treatment” was eventually abandoned. 

electroshockThe lake house had been long since sold, Ralph had passed away, and Granny was located in another town, at another long term care home closer to my aunt’s summer home.  It was many years before me and my second oldest sister T and I saw her at that summer cottage. She was in a wheelchair, having been taken from her home for the day by my aunts. Her hair was completely white, she had glasses and I wouldn’t have recognized her. At the adults coaxing, T and I went up and greeted her. We said, “Hello Granny,” as the adults told her, “These are your grandchildren.” To which she answered, “I remember you, you were all against me! You plotted against me!” We were quite mortified. Even when she was having a bird, she had never been paranoid or crazy sounding. We stayed away until they took her back to the home. She had clearly entered the dementia delusional phase, beyond memory loss which I would later find out can manifest as ugly or sweet, angry or docile, funny or tragic. 

This is my post for today. Any thoughts, comments, personal stories or questions, please speak up, I’d love to hear.

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