Disappearing in plain sight

Disappearing in plain sight

Alex Witchel addresses her mother's memory loss at JFS program

Marla Cohen is a freelance writer. She lives in Rockland County.

By anyone’s measure, Alex Witchel is an accomplished woman.

A writer for the New York Times and the author of four books, she has had a long, successful career. Her work has been published in magazines including New York, Vogue, and Elle.

By her own estimate, as she writes in her recently published memoir, she is used to taking charge and fixing things.

That is, until her mother was stricken with dementia. That was something she couldn’t fix.

“I thought I could find doctors who could stop the process, and the process cannot be stopped,” Witchel said in a recent phone interview. “If you can’t change it, you have to change yourself, your attitude, your expectations. It doesn’t make it any less sad, but I’m not in this race against time any longer. Time won.”

Alex Witchel Fred R. Conrad

Witchel details her mother’s journey through diagnosis, denial, and decline in “All Gone: A Memoir of My Mother’s Dementia, With Refreshments.” In the book, Witchel describes her mother’s odyssey into oblivion. Starting in 2000 with small slips and hiccups in her mother’s behavior, the book ends with Witchel’s grudging acceptance of her mother’s situation.

“I guess I’ve made an uneasy peace with it,” Witchel said. “It’s something I understand intellectually. I go back and forth between thinking that something I do will make a difference, even while acknowledging that it doesn’t.”

Witchel will talk about her personal experience at a program hosted by the Jewish Family Service of North Jersey at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, January 17. The talk, to be held at Temple Beth Rishon in Wyckoff, will mark the official launch of JFS’s Jewish Sam and Nina Wolff Caregivers Program. The cost is $18 per family by January 14, and $25 at the door. Call 973-595-0111 or email info@jfsnorthjersey.org.

As the adult child tasked with shepherding her mother through doctor’s appointments, finding a home health aide, and overseeing her mother’s care, Witchel had a front seat to her mother’s decline. Barbara Witchel’s dementia sneaked up on the family. At first, it was easy to ignore. But after a while, small things – she called Witchel’s stepson “Nate” instead of “Nat”; she had always been a fastidious dresser but by now her belt was askew on her dress; she delivered the same lecture delivered twice at work – all started adding up.

Witchel’s unsentimental yet heartbreaking story of observing her very vibrant and capable mother, a college professor, go through the “torturous process of disappearing in plain sight,” toggles between scenes of her mother’s decline and scenes of her own childhood, many bound up in the rituals of cooking “basic 1950s housewife food, kosher division.”

The book includes recipes at chapter breaks that include sweet and sour meatballs, potato latkes, kreplach, and a foolproof meatloaf that serves Witchel as a sort of Ur-text of mother love. While her mother doesn’t seem to derive much pleasure in cooking, and does it in a dutiful way throughout the book, Witchel enjoys the task and the memories it evokes. The dishes are homey, even homely, but the sort that might take you back to childhood and more carefree times.

“My mother never really liked to cook, but she was a good cook and we liked it when she cooked and when she cooked my grandmother’s recipes,” Witchel said. The meatloaf, in particular, stands in as a timeless anchor in the book, as if making it one more time, making it just right, would make things all better.

The meatloaf “was one of those things that didn’t change,” Witchel said. “And every time I made her meatloaf it smelled exactly the same way, it tasted exactly the same, and looked exactly the same.

“I could make the house smell the way my mother’s house smelled. It was a guaranteed way of evoking her and the power of being with her, through the food, since I couldn’t do that way through conversations.”

Witchel’s mother’s dementia was the result of undetected small strokes and the scar tissue they left behind. Unlike Alzheimer’s disease, the dementia is not supposed to be progressive. However, Barbara Witchel’s dementia grew worse. Today, she has little sense of time and often cannot remember her daughter’s name.

Witchel sought help through a social worker, who called for a family meeting. As the only one of four siblings not to have her own children, Witchel ended up charged with the task of taking care of their mother.

It is a job that took its toll, as Barbara declined and Witchel, used to feeling super-capable and adept, foundered as a solution eluded her. She could not have imagined at the outset what it would mean that her mother literally would lose her mind.

And while she could still hold onto the past, especially through cooking, the future looked grim to Witchel. The disease stole her mother. Still, Witchel visits her mother, monthly. The daughter takes her mother to the hair salon and the two get their hair done together.

“Certainly nothing erases our past, but it was more an erasing of the future,” Witchel said. Her mother “couldn’t make plans for tomorrow. She couldn’t make plans for [the next] 15 minutes. The things she likes, she still likes, and the things she didn’t like she still doesn’t like. But she can’t articulate it.

“It’s not about losing the past. She is still the same person, but she certainly is diminished.”

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