I grabbed Never Coming Back by Alison McGhee off the New Releases shelf in the library for the usual reason: I liked the cover. I’m a sucker for a good cover, and this one had snow. I didn’t even read the jacket fully which is almost always a recipe for disaster.
I remember skimming over something about a daughter who returned home and something about a family secret. Here’s a truth about books: Famly secrets usually have to do with adoption. This one didn’t, and I felt somewhat shocked.
Instead of the adoption side of my life, this book decided to slam into another big and more recent theme. The novel follows Clara Winter as she returns home to—wait for it—care for her mother who is deteriorating rapidly due to early onset Alzheimer’s. Once I realized the plot of the book, I sat it down and gave it the side-eye.
If you aren’t friends with me on Facebook, you might not know that this is my life. Kind of. My husband and I are actively involved in caring for his grandmother who is exiting Stage 5 and entering Stage 6. We’ve been kind of forced into this role, but we’re here and we’re doing the best we can.
So when I realized what was happening in the book, I literally sat it down and looked at it.
Fiction matters. It really, really matters. You can claim that it’s “not real” and therefore doesn’t matter as much as non-fiction, but you’re wrong. I learned a number of things from this novel. I also cried a lot.
As Clara tries to reconnect with her mother before she dies, she learns to just “follow her.”
Sometimes Mamaw doesn’t know she’s in a nursing home. She talks about finishing dinner and going “upstairs” to go to bed. Sometimes she forgets the boys’ names. One time she forgot me completely. (That one sucked.)
We follow her.
Sometimes he’s looking for her childhood neighbor. We never know where—in time, in space, in memory—she’s going to be.
And so we follow her.
Sometimes it feels frustrating. But Never Coming Back taught me the concept of just following her. It also taught me to stop prodding her with the word “remember.” She can’t. Mamaw has no short term memory left. Sometimes she remembers really obscure, way-back memories. Other times she can’t grab a name. Most days she can’t tell me what she just ate as the empty plate sits in front of her.
And so we’re learning to follow her. It helps keep the agitation at bay.
Like Clara’s mom, Mamaw is never coming back. We don’t have any mystery surrounding her mental decline, of course. Instead, we’re just stuck, watching it happen. The book was hard to read for this reason. I wanted Clara to achieve the closure she wanted and needed, but I knew we wouldn’t have a similar experience.
Someday Mamaw will be physically gone. We are doing our best to serve her now, while she is with us. We follow her.
If I had read this book six or ten or twenty years ago, I would not have understood the pain of losing someone to this disease. Reading it now, I felt overwhelmed at times by the similarities in thought and experience. I don’t know if I’d recommend reading this while actively deadling with a declining loved one, but I wouldn’t not recommend it either.
I am glad I grabbed this book off the shelf. I am thankful McGhee wrote this one in a beautiful, heart-breaking, so-very-real way. At the very least, I felt less alone. I’m thankful I learned how to follow her.
And we’ll follow you where you go right now, Mamaw.