Thursday, December 12, 2013

Interview with Esther Altshul Helfgott: Dear Alzheimer's: A Caregiver's Diary & Poems

      Two Sylvias Press has now released Esther Altshul Helfgott's book: 

Dear Alzheimer's: A Caregiver's Diary & Poems for the Kindle

Dear Alzheimer's: A Caregiver's Diary & Poems:

A poet's chronology of caregiving for her spouse who struggled with Alzheimer's. An intimate recording of how the disease acts as a slow moving wedge to separate us from the ones we love. A powerful testament to all who love, care give and ultimately say goodbye.


Esther's book explores her years of caregiving for her husband, Abe, after he was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease.  I interviewed about a few questions I had about writing the book, what advice or thoughts she had for other caregivers as well as her new projects, here's what she had to say--

      KRA:  Your book is about your husband, Abe, who passed away from Alzheimer's disease a few years ago. Tell us a favorite memory you have of Abe that isn't included in the book.

EAH: I love the way he loved my mother. He called her Anna. For Mother’s Day he bought her Birds of Paradise. He looked her in the eye when they spoke, sometimes into the night. He admired her politics and spunk. He took her seriously. She loved him back. “A good man,” she said. “A mensch.”  She died in 1996, the year he retired. A huge loss for both of us—mother’s death and his retirement— in many ways. I wish he would have known my father. They would have played chess together.

KRA:   What do you want to tell someone who is currently a caregiver to a spouse with Alzheimer's disease? 

EAH:  Keep a diary of your caregiving experience, not for the purpose of publishing necessarily, but to remember what you were doing all those years of caregiving. For me, eight years was like one long day. If I had not recorded the events of those days, they would have run into each other and I would have lost a big part of my history. Recording the days’ events will include conversations you had, or wished you’d had, with your loved one. Take selfy pictures with your LO, no matter how you guys look—tired, sad, doesn’t matter—and place them in your diary. You will have even more to write about once you see yourselves together on the page. Most of all, be in the moment with your LO, in his reality. Listen to what she’s saying. Don’t ask questions about the past. Hold his hand.

       KRA:  What has been the most difficult struggle you've had in writing this book? 

      EAH: Writing can be at once healing and debilitating. It relieves stress and anguish. But revising and editing can keep the anguish alive. People have said “move on.” Some can. I will, but my writing buries me into the moment I’m writing about. It keeps me within the experience, all the while it eventually helps me understand the experience more. Moreover, the results of organizing my scribblings into a work that people can hold in their hands and I can do readings from. Well, I’d say that’s an honor I’ve been given. The hard work is worth it.

      KRA:  Tell us about your life now and what you working on...

EAH:  After “Dear Alzheimer’s” I began writing notes to Abe which turned into short poems, many of them tanka. I didn’t know I was writing love letters to him but that’s, in effect, what they turned out to be. These evolved into “Listening to Mozart: Poems of Alzheimer’s” which will be out from Cave Moon Press in 2014.

Now I‘m working on “My Two Dead Sisters: Autobiography in Verse,” which is about my family-of-origin and the shadows that followed us during the McCarthy Era. It’s a painful story to write. If I’m lucky I’ll finish it 2015. That’s what I’m shooting for.

Simultaneously, I’m working on and intend to complete by the time I’m 80 – that’s only eight years away – a book I started researching in the 1990s, “She Led with Her Mind: Edith Buxbaum and Psychoanalytic Pedagogy.” it’s about Viennese-born and trained Seattle child psychoanalyst, Edith Buxbaum (1902-1982) who sought to promote psychoanalysis as an educational tool for the purpose of building a healthier society.

Then, when I I finish the Buxbaum project, I’ll apply to an MFA program in poetry. That should take me till about age 90, which should leave me about a decade or so to write a few more poems, God willing!

KRA:  Thank you, Esther and wishing you the best in all your projects!

Esther's book is available both in print and eBook version:  

Dear Alzheimer's: A Caregiver's Diary & Poems.

~ Kells

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