The Pleasure Was Mine by Tommy Hays

My grandmother had Alzheimer’s. I can’t find evidence that I have ever talked about it here, so you may or may not know that about me. She was a big part of my life when I was very small, but when she was getting sick, she cut our family off. That was very hard for me – I was around 10 or 11, and my grandmother suddenly didn’t want to see me, and I couldn’t understand why. Later on, when I was in high school, when she didn’t know who we were anymore, we were able to go and visit her. But I never knew what to say. I must confess that in some ways I still felt her rejection keenly. I knew in my head that it hadn’t been my grandmother who rejected me, that it was her disease, but at the same time I didn’t know my grandmother anymore. That person on the couch had her body but not her mind, and I wasn’t the same little girl she had known. When her body began to fail, I prayed that she would die, not because I didn’t care for her, but because she was just a shell of the person I had known, the good and the bad. Because no one ought to have to live like that.

My grandmother died while I was home for Thanksgiving weekend during my freshman year of college. I think the rest of my family went to the hospital on Thanksgiving Eve and said their goodbyes. She either passed away while they were there or early the next morning. I can’t remember right now exactly how it was. I just know that I wasn’t there. I don’t know why I didn’t go. I don’t think we knew that it was the final goodbye, for one thing. And, in many ways, I felt as if I had already said my goodbyes many years before when I dealt with her rejection of us. I have wondered if it hurt my dad’s feelings that I acted the way that I did. I just didn’t know how to deal with the situation. If you think I am a black-and-white person now, well, you should have known me when I was 18. I had decided that I was going to move on from the situation with my grandmother. Her mind had moved on, and I felt that I should move on as well. I had two grandparents who knew who I was, who had loved me through that hurt, and that was where I wanted to focus. I couldn’t handle looking back like that after I had dealt with the loss and rejection that I had felt previously.

And those experiences have a lot to do with why this book was not a home run for me. Alzheimer’s changed my grandmother, turned her into the kind of person who would cut off her grandchildren. My grandmother was eccentric, to be sure, but she loved me and my brother. I have so many memories from when we would stay at her house – the macaroni and tomatoes she would make, the way she would cut our ham into little squares, the records she had, her china, the games she kept for us, the books I read at her house, the way she would take us to Wendy’s to get frosties. Alzheimer’s took all of that away. It’s a black smear on top of those images. It took me many years to be able to separate the images from the blackness and the hurt.

The Pleasure Was Mine is the story of Alzheimer’s slowly chipping away at a long, loving relationship. The book does a lot of things very well. The character’s voice is strong and sympathetic, the question of putting a family member in a nursing home is dealt with honestly, and the family dynamics are realistic. The main character, Prate, has a dry, wry sense of humor that I appreciated. It was a sad, sweet, predictable book, but my own experiences with Alzheimer’s were so much less peaceful that I found it hard to relate. My book club read it as part of Greensboro’s One City, One Book project, a project that will always hold a special place in my heart because of the start it gave me in the library world. It’s moving and well-written, and I can see why it was chosen and why it has been so well reviewed. But I was hoping, as I read it, to see more of my own experiences in its pages, to see someone who understood what I had gone through. Perhaps my expectations were too high, but for me, I must confess, it was a bit of a letdown.

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