Reviewed by Angela L. Eckhart
I wasn’t old enough to remember my paternal grandmother, but when I was, she no longer remembered me.
I do remember, vaguely, visiting her in a residential care home in middle Pennsylvania. It was in the ’80s—my brother and I were in elementary school—and it was cold out, because it was during our holiday break from school. I mostly recall seeing her hunched over in a wheelchair, her vacant eyes trying to recognize me. She required constant care, but my parents both worked full time with two young children, so they couldn’t provide for her.
Alzheimer’s robbed me of a relationship with my dad’s mother. I later learned she developed the disease in her early 50s, which is also considered early-onset. Most, however, develop the disease over age 65. According to the Alzheimer’s Association, an estimated 6.5 million Americans aged 65 and older are living with Alzheimer’s in 2022.
While I can’t imagine what it must be like to suffer from the disease, those who care for Alzheimer’s patients offer their experiences through avenues such as articles and support groups. Best-selling author Mary MacCracken’s experiences caring for her husband were revealed in her new memoir, The Memory of All That: A Love Story about Alzheimer’s (She Writes Press; 2022).
MacCracken’s husband, Cal, a notable inventor, developed Alzheimer’s in his early 70s. He began showing mild symptoms just before his 73rd birthday, and he was diagnosed shortly thereafter. While her memoir is about Alzheimer’s disease and how it affected them, it also is about their loving marriage and devotion to each other.
The book includes a foreword by Robert B. Santulli, MD, and his first two sentences encompass a grand summary of the book: “This beautifully told, heart-rending story describes Cal and Mary MacCracken’s ordeal with Alzheimer’s disease. More fundamentally, it is about how their deep, loving relationship remained central to their lives throughout and served as a potent tool in coping with the disease until the very end.”
The chapters are divided into four parts: Part I, Before Alzheimer’s; Part II, Early Alzheimer’s; Part III, Kendal at Hanover; and Part IV, Whittier. Following the foreword, however, is a prologue showing readers the vital scene when the MacCrackens first learn of Cal’s diagnosis. This was the moment that changed their lives, and the succeeding chapters lead readers through their experience.
In Part I, MacCracken describes their love story, from the time they first met and became friends to their eventual marriage. She offers intimate, revealing details, painting a picture of Cal’s character and their relationship to one another. He loved playing tennis, but she had never played before. He said, “I’ll teach you. I don’t want anyone else as my tennis partner the rest of my life.” She claims they didn’t criticize each other and never fought. In one scene, she recalls asking him to write her a love letter. Cal was an inventor, adept at problem-solving and figuring things out in an analytical way. His love letter to her contained an organized list of the ways he loved her!
Part II includes scenes describing some of Cal’s moments of forgetfulness. Once his family noticed these moments, it took some urging from MacCracken and their children to get him to a neurologist, because he also noticed something was wrong. He admitted he was forgetting how to spell and would forget where he was at times.
A report from the Alzheimer’s Association reveals that 59% of those caring for people with Alzheimer’s rated the emotional stress of caregiving as high or very high. McCracken’s book brings the reality of that burden to life. As Cal’s symptoms increased, MacCracken fell into exhaustion. She knew she needed help.
MacCracken found assistance through an Alzheimer’s support group, and soon they were able to navigate their way into coping with the disease. Additionally, they searched for a residential care facility to help them transition, but MacCracken couldn’t fathom living apart from Cal. Fortunately, they found a place where they could reside together.
Their lives in their new apartment at Kendal at Hanover, a retirement community in New Hampshire that also provides healthcare, encompasses Part III. She said it was called “a CCRC, meaning a continuing care retirement community. It provided several types of living arrangements. We could start in our own apartment but then shift to assisted living or a nursing wing if needed.” She writes:
The best thing that came with our move to Kendal was a huge increase in companionship and support…. As I was learning again and again, Alzheimer’s was too hard a disease to cope with alone. What was getting me through each new stage of Cal’s decline was some sort of support—wise and experienced people to talk with, like doctors and social workers, but also friends—for me as well as Cal. The friends we were making at Kendal proved a blessing….
It’s heartwarming how many intimacies she shares with her readers, despite the difficult moments throughout Cal’s illness, such as when he told her that he didn’t just love her, he cherished her. MacCracken’s honest writing depicts how unconditional love can help carry one through the hard times, and she often recorded instances with Cal she didn’t want to forget, ultimately helping her complete this memoir. Her personal journal entries comprise the final part of the book, covering November 1998 through November 1999.
Alzheimer’s research continues to grow, and research is abundant, but what helps is continuing the conversation about it with those who live with it and those who provide the care. MacCracken’s book, dedicated to her husband with the note, “May all know love like ours,” fulfilled Cal’s idea to someday write a book about Alzheimer’s. But even better, in a way reminiscent to The Notebook, she shared with readers their beautiful love story.