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December 6, 2013

Lynn Cullen: The Gift

Posted by emily

We're kicking off this year's Holiday Author Blogs with Lynn Cullen, the author of numerous award-winning books for both children and adults. Her latest novel, MRS. POE, is about Frances Osgood, the married poet who inspired the love of Edgar Allan Poe and the ire of his vengeful wife. In this inaugural post, Lynn recalls an almost-encounter she had with a young couple who was searching for a children's book for the man's grandfather, whose mind was muddled by Alzheimer's, at the bookstore where Lynn was working. She wistfully admits that it wasn't apathy, but her own "hushed grief and sympathy for the young man's sorrow" that kept her from helping the couple and sharing her own similar experience. 

The young married couple came in just as the bookstore was closing. He was lanky and shy and wore a camouflage cap. She was round-edged and anxious; her wispy blond hair hung down the back of her corduroy jacket. They were on a mission. They wanted to buy a children’s picture book. It didn’t matter what it was about. It just needed to have big shapes and color. 

“It’s for my grandfather,” the young man said quietly. He frowned at the table of books that had just been pulled inside for the night. “He’s got Alzheimer’s.”

I was “working” at the store as part of Small Business Saturday the weekend after Thanksgiving. The idea was to encourage readers to come to their local bookstores by having authors take a shift on the selling floor. My job was to help customers find books and to sign my own novel. In truth, I was a terrible employee. I stood by talking with “co-workers” while the bookstore owner deftly leapt forward and miraculously placed just the right book in each reader’s hands. It went no differently with the young couple. They were presented with an armful of choices and had picked the winner and paid for it in the time it takes to brush your teeth.  

At the register, the young woman said, “He doesn’t know anything. Only color.”

By the young man’s pained grimace, I gathered it was his grandfather, not his wife’s. It was apparent that he had been attached to the man before he had become an Alzheimer’s patient, before the disease had taken his mind and left a helpless stranger in his place.

When they left, I had a sinking feeling I had done wrong. I felt that I should have spoken up. I should have told them that it wasn’t colors that their grandfather would respond to best, but something that would stimulate memories from his past. They should have looked for books on the history of his native town, books on dogs or cows or whatever he’d once raised, books on hobbies he had as a boy or as a young man with a family, books that had pictures of life as it had been back when he was bursting with youth and promise and days so full that he would drop into his bed at night. I knew this because my own father, the most important person in my life, had been plucked from his body by this cruelest of diseases, too. I knew this because the only way I could calm down Dad when his body raged as his mind receded was to show him family albums --- the older, the better. 

It wasn’t shapes or colors that soothed Dad. Although he no longer knew how to walk in those final days, nor could barely talk, as we paged through the albums, he’d speak the names of his brothers and sisters, his children, his wife. While he didn’t know the names of his grieving family when they came to visit, he could accurately identify them in pictures from the distant past.

If I had been a better employee --- if I had not been hushed by my own grief and my sympathy for the young man’s sorrow --- I would have told this young couple these things. But maybe they did exactly right. Maybe as the young man read to his grandfather, the old gentleman could hear the voice of his younger brother. Maybe he heard the voice of his own son, newly adult, or even his own voice from when he had been a young man, his own weary, love-filled voice, reading to his children, soothing them at night. Soothing them when scared. Soothing them with a story to make the nightmares go away, just as his grandson was doing for him now.  

Yes, the young man had been right. It’s not so much the book that matters. It’s the reading of it to a loved one. It’s the closeness of entering into a story together, on the page, and in life, that truly counts.