“Alzheimer’s disease is a progressive, degenerative disorder that attacks the brain’s nerve cells, or neurons, resulting in loss of memory, thinking and language skills, and behavioral changes” (Alzheimer’s Foundation of America).
Still Alice by Lisa Genova is a gripping account of an academically successful woman who slides into the horror of early onset Alzheimer’s. The fictional account is told by the character Alice, a Harvard Professor. Her story begins with slight memory loss as she starts to struggle with juggling students, lectures and motherhood, soon snowballing into more serious loss and an awareness of others acting peculiar in her presence. She excuses her forgetfulness as a symptom of an overworked stressed career woman. This haunting characterization of a debilitating disease forces the reader to the pace of a slow breath; living every chilling moment of realization that this character is slowly losing her grip on reality, her own mind and all the sacred memories of her life.
Genova brings us into this woman’s horrifying decline, capturing every detail with precision while letting us feel the emotion of her spiral. It acknowledges the children and husband of this proud woman, bringing onto the pages their denial and ultimate acceptance of losing their loving mother, their best friend and champion of their youth.
Although this is a fictional account, it is all too real for 5.4 million Americans and their families.
I have a friend; her name is Shirley “Shirl.” She was a fixture in my family throughout my childhood and one of my mother’s dearest friends. Many summer days were spent at her house, I became an expert at playing 45s, and Shirl and I bonded over our love of General Hospital. The memory of watching Luke and Laura’s wedding sitting there in Shirl’s living room is a favorite. Days were spent biking, playing hopscotch, eating at Larry’s Clam Bar, or sitting in the front yard talking to the neighbors. The vision of her in the morning, shuffling in her slippers getting her glass of ice water in her big comfy robe is so vibrant in my memory. There would be donuts on Sundays when Uncle Don arrived and lots of cookouts; the house was full of kids, laughter and movement. I understand now that her role was more than just a friend; she had become a solid support system for me, and for my mother. When my mother had to work two jobs and often times pull a double shift, Shirl picked up the reigns; feeding me, giving me a bed, a kiss and a hug. I love her for this; her unselfish unconditional love of another’s child is beyond admirable.
On January 13, 2007 I received a letter from Shirl. It was full of love and news of a diagnosis:
“Hello my love. I was so happy to hear from you! Things have changed in my life! One year ago, I was told that I have Alzheimer’s!! I am doing well! The medicine is doing great for me.” The letter ends with “I love you and always think of you. Please say hello to everyone in your life that remembers us, Love and Kisses to my sweetheart that I love very much”.
I keep that letter in my writing desk, reading it often, knowing that things have changed for her and her family since 2007. I hold our memories for the both of us. My sweet Shirl, love and kisses back at you. I love you too!