The Freedom of Alzheimer’s

A daughter discovers the surprising joy of dementia.

The Long Hello: Memory, My Mother and Me is a lyrical memoir—a hands-on, all-in, profoundly sensitive story that recounts Cathie Borrie’s thoughts and emotions as she cares for her mother, Jo, through her last years with Alzheimer’s. Jo, widowed, is in her mid eighties and is able to live alone in her own home thanks only to daily visits from Cathie. As the disease progresses, a constant rotation of live-in caregivers come and go, hired to help but never staying long enough to gain the confidence of Cathie or Jo.

Borrie holds nothing back in her writing and so we come to know the joy she discovers in the caregiving role. In an interview she describes how she started to view her mother’s world not as diminished but as a parallel one, possibly even elevated. As for her frustrations, “I try not to think about where I am and what I do all day or the things I used to do and miss most—working, studying, canoeing, movies. Men.” Yet we never feel that she is whining or complaining. We see the detail of her everyday life in a beautifully unsentimental narrative. Borrie’s writing style makes us feel we are friends, sitting together with a cup of tea, sharing our family stories.

She laments the loss of relationships, “I tuck her in. Drive home. Eat two bowls of cereal. Crawl into bed. Swaddled inside flannel sheets I hunker down under heavy wool blankets and wedge a pillow tight between my thighs, rocking back and forth. Into this slipped-down place drifts the memory of a man’s scent,” and we understand her loneliness, admire her dedication to her mother’s quality of life.

I can’t help but feel a strong connection with Borrie. The details that she shares of her mother’s decline in cognitive and motor skills draw me back to my own mother’s journey just a few years ago: her resistance to “strangers” in the house to help with her care, her insistence that she was being poisoned, her sadness at not being able to come home with me each time I visited, suspicion over money and who was looking after it, asking to see her loved ones who had long since died and, toward the end, forgetting how to use utensils to get food from her plate into her mouth. All these things hit home for me. Some were details I had mercifully forgotten, but they were more than balanced out by the lovely memories, the intimate connections made through words and phrases that were, like Jo’s, not ones my mom would ever have spoken in earlier times. There is freedom, a poetic sensibility that must come from stepping outside of the world as we know it. Alzheimer’s arrives with a new sense of reality. As Borrie shows us, we would all do well to listen more carefully, to respect the person who is uttering what sounds like absurd nonsense, to resist the urge to correct them and guide them back to our reality.

Asked by Fannie Kiefer of Shaw TV to explain the title, Borrie said “I learned at my mother’s side that something I was going to do was say hello to every phase of her illness and not goodbye.”

Borrie holds a Master of Public Health, a degree in law and a certificate in creative writing and is an accomplished ballroom dancer. Her love of dance and music lends a decidedly musical quality to her writing. She references dance throughout, in small ways but also in ways that reveal her overall philosophy of caring for a loved one with dementia—learn to follow, not lead. Probably my favourite passage is this:

Men complain the women try to lead and that’s why we go the wrong way on the dance floor, why feet get stepped on … I don’t know how to do nothing. Be empty enough, quiet enough inside to wait. To listen.

I can’t believe someone else will take care of the leading. Take care of anything.

Who does not sympathize with the need to nurture and guide and how that somehow morphs into difficulty letting things progress naturally, doing nothing while all around us our world seems to be outside of our control? Somehow Borrie was able to understand this and change her approach while her mother was still alive.

The Long Hello is written in a series of short chapters resembling entries in a journal. This style allows for great intimacy. We are able to hear Jo’s voice, appreciate the beauty in her phrases.

“How was your day?” [asks her daughter.]

“Today I was down at the horse barn. It came with lots of blessings.”

“Oh my … I love listening to you talk.”

“You love what?”

“Listening to you talk.”

“Oh, I thought I heard you say, I love to look into your voice.”

“I love that, too.”

Borrie credits her mother with bringing the lyrical quality to this story and we see that she is right through their dialogue. Borrie herself has a truly poetic style, especially when she writes of place.

There is much in The Long Hello that covers time outside of the seven years that Borrie cares for her mother. As her mother goes back in time, it seems Borrie too begins to remember her life before her mother’s Alzheimer’s. She shares bits of her childhood and teen years, of her mother as she was throughout her earlier life. She talks of her grandparents, too. Through all of this we see references to birds. They show up everywhere. Birds are even there on the cover. We envy them their song, their flight, their freedom. They elicit ideals of longing and exile. Birds often appear in conversations between Borrie and her mother, especially when Jo is worried about having to leave her home.

A Steller’s jay lands on her balcony railing. Cocks its head right, left, right.

“I can stay here? This is my home?”

“Yes, forever.”

“Will I get the birds?”

“Yes, all of them.”

“I can’t see how I would move from a place like this that I own and that I’ve been in for the last ten years and know it perfectly.”

“That’s right.”

“And it knows me.”

There are several references to the sea, “pewter-punched. Moody,” with its images of immortality and vastness and sightings of freighters—passage through life.

“There’s a huge freighter coming in. I wonder where it’s from.”

My mother squints.

“It’s coming in too full, you can’t see the Plimsoll line.”

The Long Hello should be in every library, long-term care facility and nursing home. It should be available to anyone who cares for someone with Alzheimer’s. It is easy to read—clear and short, meaningful and honest, written in beautiful language. The inevitable ending is managed with grace, love and respect.