Memoir finds humor in end-of-life caregiving

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''The Living End'' is gay writer Robert Leleux's second memoir. – Photo: Courtesy

In "The Living End" (St. Martin's Press, 2012), gay writer Robert Leleux's second memoir, he brings the reader up close to the experience of caring for a loved one with Alzheimer's disease – and the toll it takes on family and friends. Leleux writes about his grandmother Joann's illness with loving care and respect. He keeps a level head throughout the book and even succeeds in infusing the tale with much-needed doses of humor.

I spoke with Leleux shortly before the book's publication.

Gregg Shapiro: In the chapter "Hello, I Must Be Going," you write about the 2008 New York Times essay you wrote about your grandmother Joann and Alzheimer's. Was that the basis for the book or had you already begun to write it?

Robert Leleux: That's a great question. Both, I suppose. I can be a very slow writer. It's a meditative process for me. The wonderful thing about a (New York Times) "Modern Love" piece is that I knew exactly how long it would have to be. It's a wonderful way to force yourself to tell a complete narrative. I knew that I had a story that I was desperately longing to tell, and I had no means of framing it. I thought, "I bet if I framed this as a 'Modern Love' piece, I could compel myself to give it some sort of structure."

Did you have a specific audience in mind?

Yeah, because the world is dying for stories about old ladies (laughs). I heard Meryl Streep talking about Margaret Thatcher and playing old Margaret Thatcher. She said there's really no group less tended to or spoken to than old ladies. Maybe commercially it's not the smartest idea, but I love older ladies. I'm that kind of a gay guy. You sit me next to some old lady with a mouth on her and I'm a happy fella. My grandmother would definitely fall into that category (laughs). But what I've been struck by … is that, it speaks to a wider audience than I ever would have imagined. Not only have almost all of us been touched by Alzheimer's in some way, we've all had the experience of someone we love changing with time and extreme old age. I've been so moved by the way that people have spoken to me about it. It makes me incredibly happy to know that the way I've written about it, in some way, seems to rekindle people's memories of people that they've loved very much.

In addition to dealing with your grandmother, your mother-in-law Yvella also became ill, increasing your and your husband Michael's roles as caregivers. 

It's God's work. I got to be this kind of fun gay uncle (laughs), even to the older people in my life. It's one thing to flit in for a couple of weeks or months. …. It's another thing to do it day in, day out, day after day. The difficulty of it multiplies exponentially. It's very easy to lose your way in that forest of caretaking. It was a blessing to spend as much time as I did with my mother and mother-in-law, who's actually doing quite well now, when they were going through that. I also worked hard to distract my mother and take her out for pedicures or to the theater as often as I could. 

In Chapter 7, "Twelve Miles of Bad Road," you write about humor and why Southerners are funny. Would you say that you agree with the "tragedy + time = comedy" equation?

I'm afraid I do (laughs). I so wish it was otherwise. Phrased in a more empowering way, you have no control over anything that occurs in your life. There's almost nothing, as far as the circumstances of your life goes, that is determined by you. It is a humbling human fact. We do have control over the way we tell the story. If you can find a way to keep the dignity of the situation and to honor what has occurred, but can also make it funny, I do feel that it is one of humanity's ways of winning and being victorious over circumstances.