When my father died three years ago, I tried to explain to those assembled at his funeral how it was that a man so physically strong for more than 85 years could wither away so rapidly.
The car industry — in which my father worked for more than 40 years selling Oldsmobiles — provided the answer. General Motors had recently announced that they would no longer manufacture that car division.
“General Motors,’’ I solemnly announced, “killed my father. The news must have hit him like a Delta 88.’’
But it was actually the ravages of a long struggle with Alzheimer’s disease, an acute debilitation of the brain, that deprived him of most of his memories, numerous physical functions and the ability to cope with the simple tasks of everyday life. At the end, he could no longer remember the names of his children or even that which appeared on the televised screen in his den. What he thought and what he knew became a secret known only to himself.
I tell this only because of a remarkable little just-published book that tells the story of another father suffering from Alzheimer’s and the difficulty of trying to provide care for him. It’s worth noting because it was written by a former KGO news radio reporter and anchor in San Francisco who left her job nearly four years ago to return to Michigan and help her mother deal with a family situation that affects approximately 10 million people across the country.
“Measure of the Heart: A Father’s Alzheimer’s, A Daughter’s Return,’’ tells the story of how Mary Ellen Geist left an extraordinary career to become a full-time caregiver. The book was prompted by a 2005 front-page story in the New York Times about her decision, which it called a phenomenon known as the Daughter Track, a term to describe millions of women who were leaving professional jobs to return home to care for older parents.
The struggles of that journey are contained in vivid terms throughout the book, as Geist witnesses the slow descent of her father, yet also reveals some of the mysteries and marvels of the brain. Her father, Woody, could not remember what a pen was, but he could remember the lyrics and harmonies of songs he continues to perform with a choral group he’s been with for 40 years.
He doesn’t know what tennis is, but he can still play it. He can’t remember Mary Ellen’s name, but he can fold laundry to appear as if it came straight from the cleaners.
“It’s amazing,’’ said Geist, who will be here as part of her book tour this week (Book Passage in Corte Madera at 7 p.m. Thursday, Books Inc. on Van Ness Ave. in The City at 7 p.m. Friday). “He has to have music on all the time now because it picks him up. We now have a CD player in every room in the house, including the bathroom.’’
Geist moved to New York to anchor CBS News’ top-rated station shortly before making the decision to help her mother Rosemary with the stressful burden of caring for her father. It couldn’t have been easy — I’ve known Geist for more than a decade and if there was ever an obsessed news junkie, she was it. She covered the O.J. Simpson trial, the death of Princess Diana, the Sydney Olympics — she absolutely had to be wherever the action was.
“It was like some hand moving me to make this decision,’’ she said. “I was so attached to my job, but after I spent a summer with my parents, I realized that there wasn’t room in my life for anything else. I saw the difference I could make, and then something changed about me.’’
A turning point came when she visited one autumn day and asked her dad to go for a walk. She waited outside for him to come out and he had put on a jacket — a nice, powder-blue jacket that belonged to his wife that barely covered his arms and stomach.
“I looked embarrassed,’’ she writes, “as he said, ‘I have your mother’s coat on, don’t I?’ And I started to cry, the kind of crying that just won’t stop. And then I knew I wanted to come home to have the time to say goodbye.’’
That was nearly four years ago. Geist started blogging for the CBS station, relaying her personal accounts of the struggles of full-time care-giving for an Alzheimer’s patient, and she said for all the stories she’s covered, she’s never received more response, a lot from people in similar situations.
It’s a moving tale, one that continues as she and her mother cope with Woody’s ongoing care in their cottage near Walloom Lake in Northern Michigan.
Geist says her father is forgetting more and more words, but he just never stops singing.