Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Madonnas of Leningrad

The book club I have belonged to for about a year met last night to discuss the Debra Dean novel "Madonnas of Leningrad", a moving story about Marina, an elderly Russian woman who survived the siege of Leningrad and helped to remove and protect the art treasures of The Hermitage.

In the novel, Marina is struggling to conceal the encroaching symptoms of Alzheimer's disease, none too successfully, and the book is an experience in the effects of dementia, as the narrative wanders from past to present, melding characters and events in the story so that the reader can feel what it must be like to lose touch with the present, yet remember the past so vividly.

The book is a wonderful read, the kind that stays with me and affects my thinking for quite awhile. Last night I had dreams that seemed connected to the story and, on my trek down the driveway this morning to get the papers, I was attuned to all the sensations that early morning offers, to the present day's moments and their pleasures.

But I couldn't help wondering whether I would ever experience what Marina experienced as she lost her short-term memory and became more and more out of touch with present-day reality. It is one of my greatest fears, to lose my mind to dementia.

I don't think it's in my family heritage, except maybe for Tante Caro, my great-aunt who was batty enough to be hospitalized in her later years, though in the 50's we didn't call it Alzheimer's and chances are she didn't really need the State Hospital.

Having always been the smart kid in my family, the honor student, the valedictorian, the Mensa member, I am vigilant about my brain's capabilities and am always taking their temperature, wanting to gauge where they are in the spectrum of inevitable decline. So far, so good.

But I'm no longer interested in scholarly reading and writing, at least not much. I'd rather examine human interactions on a personal stage, not on a chart. I'd rather talk about sacred relationships than about theological intricacies. I'd rather make new friends than read new treatises.

I like to think that this is growth, not decline, that these interests are more valuable in the long run than a familiarity with the latest technology or scientific discovery. And I do keep my wits sharpened, with puzzles and music and reading voraciously and all the things they tell you are good brain exercise.

But the day may come (many years from now, I trust) when my son has to take away the car keys, has to persuade me to live somewhere else, to give up my independence in favor of safety and health. I may need to be parented by him someday. I hope I can be gracious about it, look at it all as a new adventure, enjoy the moment, and not give him as hard a time as he gave me when he was two years old.

It occurred to me, at the end of "Madonnas", that we are unwittingly training our children how to be with us when we are winding down our lives. The bumper sticker "Treat your children well; they'll choose your nursing home" is funny but holds a good deal of truth.

In "Madonnas", Marina and her husband Dmitri have never told their children about their lives in Russia during WWII, preferring to leave that terrible life behind when they come to America. Consequently, Elena and Andrei have no idea what Marina is experiencing, as she moves back and forth between present and past reality. They are hamstrung and can't understand and that is as great a tragedy as Marina's disease.

Now excuse me, while I get ready to go to the gym after I do my first crossword of the day and eat my brain food breakfast.


LinguistFriend said...

I is less than a decade since I saw both my parents decline and die, with their loss in quality of life during their last decade more the result of the effects of smoking than of anything else that I know of. You have only the one son, which simplifies things to some extent; there will be no dynastic struggles.
It can be hard to be certain
what is going on in the parent's mind. My father's second wife swore that my father was senile at a time when he could still converse with me faultlessly about advanced engineering mathematics, although his health was deteriorating. Shortly thereafter she cut off his communication with his grown children. I was considering legal action against that at the moment when I learned that he had died. I spare you an analysis of her motives.
Your professional work will constantly test and stimulate you, make you learn and remember and respond to people and situations. That is probably more to the point than cross-word puzzles, although there are certainly intellectual sub-fields where it is good to exercise one's mind to keep skills fresh. I have spent time this semester teaching some electronics to a good post-doc, and I don't mind the exercise of reviewing details of electric circuits and working problems on them with him.
Occasionally each of us will make a mistake. The interaction reminds me of when I was in early elementary school with several of the children of the German aeronautical engineers whom the US stole at the end of WWII; that was healthy intellectual competition. Your daily life as a minister, with constant problem-solving, will provide much the same effect, I suspect.

ms. kitty said...

I am so sorry about the way your father's life ended, LF. I detect a deep ache there.

Our professional lives do keep us going, don't they? You are constantly being challenged by the needs of your students. I am constantly being challenged by the needs of my congregants.

I needed reminding of that. Thanks.

Mile High Pixie said...

I was gonna say, Ms. K, that dealing with human interactions and finding the right words at the right time are both learning experiences and require a deftness of mind that is as worthy as any Sudoku (though there's nothing wrong with Sudoku, mind you).

(And as I write this, my husband just grabbed our reclusive cat and is snuggling her, much to her dismay. She complains and then purrs about it.)

The story you describe also makes me think of how it's hard to really ever know your parents' stories fully. My dad has been gone for ten years, so I'm missing a lot of his stories. My mom's telling of her history is spotty at times, and we've found that we have to cross-check some of her memories with her sisters, just to be sure. Yet I know they've lived rich, amazing lives. How can I ever know it all? The comedy, the tragedy, the lessons? said...

Good post Great comment on Madonnas of Leningrad

Christina Martin said...

I do think it's growth, not lapsing. who you are is so much more important than whatyou are. The person is so much more than the sum of his or her parts, let alone that one part, intelligence, taken separately from the rest of the self.

I think I want to look for that book. It sounds like a very good read indeed!

ms. kitty said...

Thanks for your wisdom, all. Christina, I'll be sending the book to Jean, so you can borrow it from her soon!