At the moment, I am wary of books written by children about their parents’ struggle with Alzheimers. Increasingly, I know, I will find myself identifying with them more and more because someone very close to me has Alzheimers.
I picked up this book in a bookshop while I was down at the beach, and put it down again. But when someone who knows my family-member offered it to me, with some trepidation, I accepted her offer and settled down to read it.
Hazel Hawke is the ex-wife of Bob Hawke, the former prime minister. In Australia, we don’t particularly think in terms of “first ladies” as such, but the Prime Minister’s wife often escorts her husband on official occasions and acts as patron to charities and causes close to her own heart. Prime Minister Bob Hawke was a flamboyant, emotional larrikin. Although he always acted with propriety while Prime Minister, his past of alcohol and womanizing always seemed close to the surface. You always sensed that he would be a challenging man to live with. When the marriage broke up after he was no longer Prime Minister, Hazel kept her silence and her dignity.
When reading this book, I was reminded of the deep affection I have for Hazel Hawke. She earned it through her own intelligence and interests, her strong advocacy of abortion rights, and although I’m sure she didn’t wish it this way, her resilience after her marriage breakdown was a model for the many others in similar situations.
In 2003, she and her daughters revealed on the ABC television program Australian Story that she was suffering with Alzheimers, or ‘The Big A’ as she called it. I watched the show with a mixture of admiration for her courage and selflessness in so publicly aligning herself with such a silencing, stigmatized illness, and a feeling of dread that I was watching what will, inevitably, also be my fate as daughter.
To be honest, the tone of this book really annoyed me. It was like listening to someone affecting a rather forced cheerfulness, full of platitudes, and talking too much. If it’s beautiful writing you’re after, then Sue Miller’s book The Story of My Father is far superior. But both these books are not really about the writing and they’re not only about the father or mother whose stories they are telling. What they are both about is grief, loss and being a parent to one’s parent.
This book reminded me that, in spite of the loss of planning abilities, routines and conversation, it is the emotions that remain. As someone who loves them, it is the emotions that matter and emotions that we need to respond to.