Memory of love in the face of Alzheimer’s disease

Author Vivienne Ulman

Author Vivienne Ulman

CHANTAL ABITBOL

FOR writer Vivienne Ulman, there’s one haunting vision of her mother in the throes of dementia that brought it all home for her.

It was an October day in a Melbourne nursing home. Her mother, Lucy, had abandoned ordinary food utensils and was eating with her hands, picking up bits of food in her fingers and lifting them to her mouth.

If something didn’t agree with her, she’d flick it onto the floor. Ulman’s father, Saul, sat opposite her, lovingly cutting up her food into small pieces and watching over her.

“It was so disturbing to me,” recalls Ulman, 61, who captured the scene in the first chapter of her book, Alzheimer’s: A Love Story, which chronicles her mother’s journey battling the disease. The book will be launched in Melbourne next month.

“Once I started with the chapter, then I knew I had to go back to the beginning and it all went from there.”

Ulman, a prize-winning short-story writer and freelance journalist, started writing the book in November 2007. By that time, her mother had fallen far into the clutches of the disease and was only a shadow of her former self.

Ulman was shuttling between her farm in Tasmania and a flat in Melbourne to be by her mother’s side.

As she vividly recounts, long gone were the days when her mother would fill her hours dancing to Andre Rieu and reading her beloved books.

Witnessing the slow disintegration of her mother, Ulman kept a journal, writing letters to her lost mother.

“It was such a hard thing. I was trying to process it,” she says.

But it was only when Ulman’s daughter suggested incorporating her writings into a book that she considered the idea.

“It seemed like such an obvious thing to do,” she says looking back. “My mother quite early began to lose language. She stopped speaking in public because she was embarrassed and never knew what would come out of her mouth. Somehow, that made me want to speak for her.”

But as the title suggests, it’s more than just a tale about Alzheimer’s. It’s also about the love story between her mother and father, who remained ever faithful to each other until the end.

Ulman includes snapshots of her parents’ life together, a family history that saw her father rise from farm boy to successful businessman, all with the loving support of the woman by his side.

In a reversal of roles, her father returned the support as he cared for his wife with undying devotion.

“It was an amazing thing to witness,” Ulman says. “So much of our identity is in our memory and how we see ourselves. My mother lost her knowledge of so much, but until her last moment she knew him and loved him and knew she was loved.”

Much of Ulman’s recollections are infused with a strong sense of her Jewish upbringing and tradition. But it’s an aspect of her writing that took her by surprise, she admits.

“I’m not religious at all; it’s not something I set out to do at all,” says Ulman, who has also written two unpublished novels that contain no Jewish themes.

“I wanted to tell the story and that’s the kind of family we are. I sometimes have looked at myself and wondered why I haven’t written more about Jewish subjects.”

After years of struggle, Ulman’s mother passed away earlier this year. Ulman says she is still trying to come to terms with her death.

“I’m not really there yet. For many months, I could only think of her in how she was at the end, and that was this awful feeling. But the memories I have now are of how she was. I remember how funny she was and how loving. It brings back the pain of missing her, but I don’t mind. I’m glad to miss her because she’s worth it.”

Alzheimer’s: A Love Story will be launched at Readings Carlton, 309 Lygon Street, Carlton on November 12 at 6.30pm. Bookings: [email protected]; (03) 9349 5955.