Still Emily?

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I have lately noticed more lines around my eyes and wrinkles in my forehead, and this semester, not one of my students ventured to ask me how old I was, like they used to. When I taught English 1010 students several years ago in my late twenties, they inevitably would wonder if I was old enough to be teaching them. This semester, nobody asked. Nobody wondered. I’m officially starting to look old enough to teach college and apparently old enough to not be thought young any longer.

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This has been compounded by some strange episodes of memory failure. I say “strange” because they have been strange to me. I’ve always had a good memory, ever since winning the 4th grade spelling bee, and I’ve always thought of myself as with it and on top of things. Now, I’m forgetting what I walked into a room for, even if that walk there only took 20 seconds. I am losing words more than I used to. And most concerning, I locked my keys in my car at Target the other day, making it impossible for me to pick up my oldest daughter and her friend from ballet. I had to call her friend’s dad to pick them up, and I had to get another friend to get my spare keys from my house and bring them to me. I was grateful for the help, but it made me even more concerned about my memory and my focus. I’ve only ever locked my keys in the car once before, and that was a long time ago. Like I said, I’m usually aware of and hyper alert to my actions and what I’m focused on doing. It’s my type A personality.

When I talked with my husband about how concerning these little memory lapses were to me, he laughed and said, “Now you know what it’s like to be me.” He’s long been locking keys in his car, losing cell phones and jackets, and forgetting where he parked his car ever since we first met. I’ve always teased him about this behavior, but now I’m starting to exhibit it, and it’s not so funny.

It became even more terrifying when I began reading Still Alice (2009) by Lisa Genova. This book was made into a film last year that won Julianne Moore an Oscar for best actress, and I had been on the library waiting list for the book for the last six months. My turn to read it came just as I started feeling like I was losing my own mind.

Still Alice is a novel about Alice Howland, a Harvard psychology professor, who is diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s disease in her early 50s. The book traces her decline by month. At first, she’s doing well and keeping up with speaking and teaching and researching and traveling. However, one day she misses a flight to a conference, because she forgot about it. Another time, she goes running and finds herself in Harvard Square, which she is familiar with, but can’t remember which way is home. As the story progresses, her behavior becomes more and more concerning. She enters a neighbor’s house and goes through the whole kitchen for tea thinking that it was her kitchen and that it had been rearranged. She attends one of her classes and thinks she is a student. She sits in the audience for 20 minutes and then leaves, believing that the professor isn’t coming, when the professor is she. It is a terrifying narrative to read, one that pulled at my heartstrings and made me worry more than necessary about my own recent memory lapses.

Through all of this, she has her husband John and her three children, Anna, Tom, and Lydia. Interestingly, her relationship with the youngest, Lydia, improves as she loses her memory. Lydia wants to be an actress instead of going to college, and Alice doesn’t approve. However, as she is removed mentally and emotionally from her family, she tells Lydia to make her own decisions and do what is right for her, not realizing she is giving this advice to her own daughter and not remembering the volatile past they share.

Anna ends up having twins through in vitro fertilization, and she and her husband are able to screen out embryos with the Alzheimer’s gene because of her mother’s diagnosis. Anna has the gene, and will eventually face the same fate as her mother. Alice lives to see her grandchildren, although she is in some of her most confused states by this time.

Alice had written herself a quiz before she mentally declined too much. She had to answer some questions everyday that would pop up on her Blackberry. The end of the quiz said that if she has trouble answering them, she should open a file called “Butterfly” on her computer. Well, she puts her Blackberry in the freezer and it is ruined. But later on, as she’s more confused about the past and present, she stumbles on the “Butterfly” file. It tells her, in her own words to trust her past self, that if she’s reading this file then she’s too sick to go on. The file tells her to get the bottle of sleeping pills she had stashed and take them all and go to bed. It seems that Alice will follow these instructions, as she trusts her former self, but when she goes to get the pills, she forgets what she was looking for and ends up forgetting to take them.

Her husband John is an interesting character. I would certainly love to read more about this situation from his perspective. From Alice’s perspective, he seems uncaring and selfish. He’s supposed to take a sabbatical from his job at Harvard to spend a year with her as she continues to decline. Instead, he insists on taking a job in New York City as the director of some scientific foundation that will bring him prestige. While this struck me, and Alice and the children, as selfish, I could see how he would have a hard time dealing with her decline and how it would be scary for him to spend so much time with his wife in this state. The end of the book seems to resolve this by Alice staying with her daughters in Boston, while her husband goes to New York and visits on weekends.

Overall, this is a heartbreaking novel. I enjoyed reading it, but I was filled with anxiety and worry as Alice continued to lose her mind and her will. Of course, I wasn’t expecting a perfect outcome or for the clinical drug trial to magically cure her. This book was realistic, and it helped me to understand just how hard and scary Alzheimer’s, and many other diseases, can be for those experiencing it and for their family members.

I can’t wait to see the film.

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