By Paul Dobbyn
AUTHOR Michele Gierck is emphatic that accompanying her mother through Alzheimer’s to her eventual death “is not a sad story”.
Reading the Melbourne author’s latest book, “Fraying: Mum, memory loss, the medical maze and me”, it’s easy to agree.
“Touching”, “inspirational”, “heart-warming” and “informational” are words which come to mind, but definitely not “sad”.
Michele was very clear about this on a recent visit to Brisbane to launch the book at West End’s Avid Reader Bookshop.
“My mum was such a character – she worked as a school-crossing lollipop lady till she was 88 and then started having memory loss,” she said.
“I supported Mum for about a year until she died at 89.
“It was a great privilege to accompany my mother on this journey.
“I think it brought our relationship to a very strong point, a place that was quite full of grace.”
Nowhere is this relationship more touchingly portrayed in the book than in the events of December 30, 2010, the day before Michele’s mother, Jean, died.
As interviewer, I’m privileged to hear the story from the daughter’s own lips.
“The day before Mum died she was supposed to have lost all her speech,” Michele said.
“She was sort of gazing out as if leaving this world; as though someone else was beckoning …
“She’d also lost her fear of dying which had been with her, so I learnt that the process of dying was not to be feared.”
Michele had seen a lot of dead bodies during her social justice work in El Salvador as it rebuilt from years of civil war.
Her book “700 Days in El Salvador” covered her time in the Central American country in the 1980s and 1990s.
“There I saw people with absolutely nothing but with the most incredible faith,” she said.
“I kind of got these glimpses of faith which were so powerful they lasted me a decade.
“And the one thing El Salvadorians did really well was death – they used it as a time to really celebrate their faith and the journey of the person who had died.”
Despite all this, Michele had never been with anyone through the actual process of dying.
“And it was my own mother,” she said.
“I’d think: What would help?
“Always I’d come back to Mum’s deep faith.
“With her the day before her death, I’d keep saying: ‘Mum, would you like me to say a Hail Mary?’
“By then, according to the hospital staff, she was supposed to have lost her speech, but she fairly ripped through the Hail Marys … absolutely beat the pants off me saying them.
“We’d come to ‘now and at the hour of …’ and I’d break down; there’d be tears pouring down my face.”
Michele witnessed another remarkable event when a priest visited her mother that day.
“Mum got up on one arm and said this prayer I’ve never heard before,” she said.
“The priest said later she would have learnt that as a little girl.
“All this really got me thinking – Mum was supposed to have lost her speech yet here she was saying these prayers.
“It sort of seemed like a natural thing; I felt privileged and quite full of grace to have been there.”
Eventually, the inevitable is asked: “Why did you write the book?”
“I couldn’t not write it,” Michele said.
“I found the whole experience so intense; felt so unprepared I kept a journal – because who actually would listen to you while it was going on?”
This simple and straightforward telling of the mother-daughter relationship proves highly effective.
Take, for example, Michele’s often humorous and affectionate look at her mother’s simple faith.
A large glass, packed tight with $5 and $10 notes, was discovered in a cupboard in the mother’s kitchen one day.
It turned out every time the increasingly forgetful mother lost something, she prayed to St Anthony.
Then, just to make sure the keen-eyed saint heeded her plea, she also popped a donation in a glass.
Eventually, when the glass was too packed to take more, Michele’s mum deposited the funds in the local church’s poor box.
Yet Michele was determined “Fraying: Mum, memory loss, the medical maze and me” would be much more than an edifying or entertaining tale of a close mother-daughter relationship.
She faced many challenges trying to help her mother deal with a failing memory and other medical issues, including a problematic heart valve.
“I wrote the story I would love to have had someone give me when Mum started first having memory issues,” she said.
“I think there are conversations the whole community needs to have on these issues.
“The section at the back of the book looks at what things I might have done differently.
“For example, I didn’t know about palliative care services.
“They would have been good to help Mum with her fear of dying at one stage.
“There are also useful websites which include Alzheimer’s Australia, Advance Care Planning Australia and tips on a checklist of items to collect in a dossier for the person needing care.”
People also often ask Michele why she didn’t join a carers’ support organisation.
“I never thought of myself as a carer the whole way through,” she said.
“It started with a request to be taken to medical appointments … it’s your mum, you don’t think about it.
“Then you start doing a bit more and a bit more.
“You’re getting more and more involved all the time.
“Maybe you even start questioning some assessments, as I did.”
Michele agreed “Fraying: Mum, memory loss, the medical maze and me” should be a useful resource for others who inevitably find themselves in the same position.
“I guess though at its heart, the book remains a simple mother-daughter story,” she said.
“I can also say from the experience it is a real privilege to accompany someone dying; it just cuts the (rubbish) away.
“It’s a reminder about the time our earthly journey comes to an end.
“From there that’s the great journey you make on your own; when you really find out about your own faith and important stuff like that.”