Monday 13 February 2023


My continuing random walk through the non-fiction parts of Borrowbox turned up How to Forget by Kate Mulgrew. If you're a normal person, like, with a telly, you probably twigged Kate Mulgrew as a familiar / famous name; even if you failed to identify her as/with Captain Janeway in Star Trek: Voyager. Not me: although we're about the same age, I'd never 'eard of 'er. The book is my jam, however, because it concerns serial end-of-life issues: documenting the death of her father [cancer, quick], mother [dementia, s l o o o w] and teenaged kid sister Tessie [astrocytoma, aaarrrgh].

The Mulgrew family grew 6 children to adulthood (see above and an infant died as well) just outside of Dubuque, Iowa. The parents, like many parents in the 50s, allowed the kids considerable freedom of movement. The house came on a 40 acre lot which formed a backdrop for kids to be adventurous, resilient and self-sufficient. Nobody paid enough attention when Tessie started getting headaches - because Mulgrews toughed it out. So by the time she was obviously ailing, the tumour in her head was inoperably large and pervasive. Tough families internalize their grief and guilt.

Another jolting anachronism is The Dhrink. If you've seen Mad Men, you'll know that every 1960s executive had a bottle of bourbon in their filing cabinet. Middle class Dubuque was like that: the men would leave child-care to their wives and older daughters [like Kate] while they got 'lit' with their pals downtown after work. When sufficiently tanked to face diapers, TV and dinner they'd drive home in tank-sized sedans and only rarely kill anyone on the journey. 

Mrs Mulgrew developed Alzheimer's despite seeking a second opinion from a West Coast neurologist who confirmed the diagnosis, plain for all to see, of the family's regular Dubuque physician. Her trajectory [unsteadily downwards with some brief partial recovery] will be familiar to all families who live with dementia. The Dad continued to patriarch while the grown-up children responded in ways predictable from their role in the family dynamic - some 'better' than others; some with true kindness and compassion. At least some of these offspring had accumulated sufficient wealth to keep their mother at home and cared for almost until the end. Then it was possible for them to buy a smaller house nearer to emergency services to see out the old lady's final bed-ridden, incontinent, mindfree months.

At some point, Mrs Mulgrew refused even the tiny quantities of food she had been coaxed into eating. But she lasted at least 2 more weeks on ice-cubes and wet face-cloths. There is an unintentional funny [if you're agnostic] incident when an old friend comes to pay her last respects. This old friend is Mother Superior of some prestigious Catholic institution and comes in full regalia. The immediate family gather in the bedroom for her ministrations. The Religious bends to her dying friend's ear and gives her permission To Go. But the shell of Mrs Mulgrew won't take the hint and Mother Super has to return to her earthly duties before The End. After sharing rather too much intimate information about her still living family and friends, Kate draws a somewhat discrete veil over her mother's actual last breath; and I respect her for that. But the last statement of anyone near the beside is brother Joe's "A watched kettle never boils" which might, hopefully, indicate that Mrs. Mulgrew was able to depart when the room emptied a bit and quiet preceded quietus. In a way How to Forget is a reasonable guide for How To Die.

Vergissmeinnicht? Keith Douglas.

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