Showing 51 - 60 of 675 annotations tagged with the keyword "Illness and the Family"

Annotated by:
Aull, Felice

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Graphic Memoir

Summary:

Cartoonist Roz Chast's memoir is a rich, satiric, forthright, and at times deeply disturbing exploration of how she negotiated the decline of her aging parents. Disturbing because the description of all the elements with which she had to deal in easing them toward death highlights the myriad difficulties and complexities many of us will also face. Her account is centered on her relationship with her parents, moving back and forth between her childhood (unhappy) and the more recent past. Chast brings to life her father and mother's disparate personalities and makes no bones about her fraught interaction with them, especially with her mother, and her ambivalence about having to take responsibility for helping them in their final years,.

The memoir is divided into 18 chapters plus introduction and epilogue. The book has elements of multi media presentation, consisting of cartoons accompanied by extensive text in "balloons"; additional handwritten commentary - sometimes occupying an entire page; photographs - of family, and rooms in her parents' Brooklyn apartment plus items found therein; reproductions of her mother's poetry, typed and handwritten; and, finally, drawings (not cartoons) of her mother in her last days.

Chast notes that she is an only child and that her parents were older than most parents while she was growing up. The implication: the burden of taking responsibility rested solely on her and became an issue while she was raising her own family, when her parents were in their 80s. Chast makes clear that she was completely unprepared for everything that would be involved and that her parents had done nothing and would do nothing to make their own preparations for disability - "Can't we talk about something more pleasant?"

Chast's story begins with her impulsive visit - after an absence of 11 years- to the Brooklyn apartment where she grew up and where her parents still reside. She is appalled by the grime and clutter they live in. A few years later, when her parents are 90, Chast reluctantly visits more regularly, speaks to them daily on the phone, and hopes their lives will continue uneventfully and "maybe they'll both die at the same time in their sleep" (22). As Chast visits her parents more frequently the idiosyncrasies that used to irritate her still irritate her and there is no escape - they are too old and needy to run away from. Complicating the situation, her parents deny their neediness and reject most interventions that might help them in their daily lives.

When her parents are 93, after her mother falls a few times and her father shows increasing signs of forgetfulness, Chast manages to persuade her parents that they should together consult an "elder lawyer" - a specialist in "the two things that my parents and I found it most difficult to discuss: DEATH AND MONEY" (38). Even with the legalities this step puts in place, Chast feels overwhelmed when her mother is hospitalized for acute diverticulitis, leaving Chast to care for her increasingly senile father, prepare for her mother's return home, and worry about how her parents will be able to live on their own. The author makes fun of her helplessness: when she arranges for an ambulette to take her mother home from the hospital Chast congratulates herself, admitting "I had a pathetically large amount of pride in myself for doing things like that" (84).

A year later it is clear to all concerned that Chast's parents cannot continue to live alone. Chast is fortunate to quickly find a spot in an assisted living facility ("The Place") close to her own home. After settling her parents there she must sort through and empty out their Brooklyn apartment. A major undertaking. After a while "I was sick of the ransacking, the picking over and deciding, the dust, and the not particularly interesting trips down memory lane" (121). At the same time, Chast must arrange for her parents' aides, buy furniture and other items - total costs were high and not covered by insurance - "it was enraging and depressing" (128); how long her parents' savings and pensions would cover their expenses became a constant worry for Chast. Money worries became more acute after Chast's father fell and broke his hip, needing additional daily care. "I felt like a disgusting person, worrying about the money" (145). At the same time, Chast mourns her father's obvious decline and resents that her mother is insensitive to her feelings "it was, as it always was, completely about her" (141).

Chast's father dies (miserably), aged 95; her mother lives for two more years, in and out of a nursing home, not eating, rallying under the care of a hired attendant, then fading again. During this period, as the mother herself notes, "her brains were starting to melt." Chast feels the need to "have a final conversation with my mother about the past" (201), expressing the wish that they could have been better friends while Chast was growing up. The response is not what Chast had hoped for, and she is surprised by how upset she feels. Yet a week before Chast's mother dies, the mother declares love for her daughter.

When her mother is no longer communicative, Chast draws her as she lies in bed - Chast's manner of communication, bringing to mind other artists who drew dying loved ones in their final days (see annotations of Sue Coe's "The Last Eleven Days" and Ferdinand Hodler's "The Dying Valentine Godé-Darel" ). In the epilogue, Chast explains her decision to store the "cremains" of both parents, separately, in her bedroom closet. "Maybe when I completely give up this desire to make it right with my mother, I'll know what to do with their cremains. Or, maybe not" (227).

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A Little Something

Haddaway, Richard

Last Updated: May-13-2014

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Summary:

A Little Something is a story of a medical catastrophe for a family: at a baseball game, 10-year-old Justin is struck in the face by a foul ball. He seems OK initially, but he has a loose tooth. His father takes him to a dentist, where, left unattended, he has a drug reaction and loses consciousness. Paramedics take him to a hospital, but he does not wake up. He becomes the still center of the book; three circles form around him.  The closest circle includes the attending neurologist Dr. Goldstein and, of course, his parents. His mother Kath is a pediatric physician; she follows closely the medicine involved and knows well the hospital where Justin is being treated. His father Sam is an introverted financial man; he measures everything in numbers. Their marriage is stressed even before the accident. Kath’s nurse at her clinic, Jonesie, is a steady support. Granny, a Licensed Vocational Nurse, comes to watch over Justin. In a moving scene, she bathes the unconscious boy.

A second circle includes other family and friends, the clientele of Kath’s pediatric clinic, the children, and their parents. These are largely Latino, underserved in Fort Worth, Texas, of 2001. (Kath has chosen a medical specialty that earns less money than other fields—in contrast to her money-grubbing mother, who is satirically portrayed.) Next door to the clinic is a firehouse, where Justin has visited and made friends. The blue-collar firemen are public servants who help make a community work.

A third circle is less defined but contextual for the novel: country folks, like Granny, who are not intellectual but practical. They believe in keeping going no matter what, a folk wisdom of realistic, durable hope.

For three-quarters of the novel there’s suspense about Justin’s recovery. At one brief moment, Sam is sure of a turnaround when he sees (or thinks he sees) a smile on Justin’s face. For nine days Sam and Kath experience hope, anger, exhaustion, expressed rage, confusion, and continuous uncertainty.

Finally there is “the meeting,” a gathering of the doctor, the family, Kath’s faithful clinic nurse Jonesie, and Father Red, a Catholic priest from Justin’s school.  Dr. Goldstein says there is no hope for recovery and gives the medical details of Justin’s brain death, which has both anatomical and legal certainty.

Kath and Sam decide to disconnect Justin from life support and allow organ donation. When Justin must be transferred from the children’s hospital to the neighboring one, Sam carries him in his arms. A surprise ritual is an honor guard of firemen who line the path of the procession.

We read the specifics of disconnecting the vent tube, watching the heart race on the monitor, then the flat line of the still heart. Father Red reads from the Book of Common Prayer. An hour later, a helicopter takes off from the hospital with Justin’s donated heart.

An Epilogue six months later describes a Thanksgiving dinner at the firehouse. Sam and Kath are closer now, and he plans for them a trip to Hawaii. There’s has been, however, no easy “closure,” and the couple combines memories with mourning. 

            

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Sarah's Daughters

Nisker, Jeffrey

Last Updated: May-09-2014
Annotated by:
Duffin, Jacalyn

Primary Category: Literature / Plays

Genre: Play

Summary:

In a dramatic monologue, Joanne traces the devastation of a familial proclivity to breast cancer through four generations of women: her grandmother Sarah; her mother; Joanne herself and her two daughters, one of whom is also Sarah.

Joanne’s mother and grandmother both died very young of breast cancer; however, many other family members vanished in the Holocaust and the number of familial cancer deaths is insufficient for her to qualify for genetic testing. Her friend Linda, also a mother of two daughters, learns too late that she carries the BRCA gene; she urges Joanne to be tested.

Tormented by not knowing and equally tormented by what should be done if the test is positive—both for herself and her daughters, she convinces a doctor to lie so that the test can be performed. It is positive; Joanne opts for bilateral preventative mastectomies. During a visit to the gravesite of her mother and grandmother, she begins to explain the genetic risk to her daughters. 

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Orchids

Nisker, Jeffrey

Last Updated: Mar-24-2014
Annotated by:
Duffin, Jacalyn

Primary Category: Literature / Plays

Genre: Play

Summary:

A chorus of lab techs making symmetrical repetitive motions with microscopes, pipettes, and petri dishes opens the play. They persist in the background of the set, which is the waiting and consulting rooms of a clinic for reproductive technology.  The chief, Dr. Staiman, is not only an expert in this field of human biology  he also enjoys an international reputation (and many patents) for his genetic manipulation of orchids in a quest for perfect blooms.

Heather and Rose are both clients of the facility. Heather wants a baby and needs help to be able to conceive. Rose could actually conceive on her own; however, she is investing in expensive and painful genetic selection to avoid having a child with the same trait as her brother. His Tourette’s syndrome, she contends, ruined life for her parents and herself as well as for him.

It emerges that Heather too has Tourette’s syndrome, but she does not believe it ruined life for her family and is unafraid of having an affected child. The women must wrestle with the notion that Rose does not think someone like Heather should exist; and Heather wonders if she should be testing her own embryos.

The two clinic doctors, Blume and Staiman, offer similar services, but as an ethicist, Blume worries about the moral implications of the new technology. Heather challenges Staiman over his willingness to destroy an embryo that might become a person like herself. He seems baffled by her concern, claiming that science makes perfection possible and that the decision should belong to the parent.

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Stitches

Small, David

Last Updated: Mar-03-2014
Annotated by:
Aull, Felice

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Graphic Memoir

Summary:

While the author's surgery for throat cancer when he was 14 years old, and its aftermath are the central events in this graphic memoir, Stitches is more essentially the story of a dysfunctional family. The memoir begins when David Small is six, growing up in Detroit, drawing, and observing the body language of his often silent parents and brother. Tension fills the house. David's mother's face is in an almost permanent scowl and the "mere moving of her fork a half inch to the right spelled dread at the dinner table" (16).  She slams pots and kitchen cabinet doors while David's radiologist father lets loose on a punching bag in the basement and his brother beats drums. David is in a constant struggle to avoid his mother's fury, which author/artist David depicts as a tidal wave. His father is remote, puffing silently on his pipe.
 
When David is 11 a female friend of the family, the wife of a surgeon, draws attention to a growth on David's neck, which his parents have either failed to notice or knowingly ignored. In due time the neck is x-rayed. The surgeon-friend diagnoses a sebaceous cyst and recommends an operation. With the mother's frequent protests about lack of money--in spite of an extended shopping spree the parents undertake-- it is three and a half more years before the surgery takes place. David undergoes the procedure with relative equanimity, the hospital and medical staff being familiar -- people he "thought of as my extended family, my protectors" (160). When he wakes up from the surgery, his father assures him that nothing is wrong but that he will need a second operation by a specialist. Uncharacteristically, his mother asks if there is anything she can get for him.

Waking up from the second surgery, David has no voice -- one vocal cord and his thyroid gland have been removed. "The fact that you now have no voice will define you from here on in" (186). Later, when changing his bandage by himself, he discovers a long, ugly array of stitches on the side of his neck. He has nightmares, and on one sleepless night as he wanders the house, discovers a letter written by one of his parents to "mama" which says, "of course the boy does not know it was cancer" (204). The accumulated silences and parental betrayal trigger David's delinquent behavior and  time in a boarding school, from which he runs away three times; ultimately he is expelled with a recommendation to get psychiatric help. Reluctantly, his mother drives him to a psychoanalyst -- "it's like throwing money down a hole, if you ask me" (247) -- but this intervention turns David's life around. The analyst, depicted by the author as a tall, fully clothed white rabbit, explains to David, "your mother doesn't love you" (255).  "It was such a relief to hear" said Small in an interview. Another truth is eventually revealed by David's father, who takes David out to dinner to tell him, after a lengthy silence, that the numerous x-ray treatments for sinus infections he had given the young David must have caused the throat cancer: "two-to-four hundred rads. I GAVE YOU CANCER" (286-287).

 

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Someone

McDermott, Alice

Last Updated: Feb-13-2014
Annotated by:
McEntyre, Marilyn

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Summary:

Marie Commeford, daughter of Irish Catholic immigrants who grows up in Brooklyn, narrates her life story in episodes rich with reflection on the losses, failed fantasies, illnesses, and disappointments of a life at the edge of poverty, which is also rich with love and poetry and humor and the stuff of which wisdom is made.  The story unfolds as memory unfolds, in flashbacks and reconstructions shaped by a present vantage point from which it all assumes a certain mantle of grace.   From the opening story in which a neighbor girl slips on the steps to a basement apartment and is killed, to repeated glimpses of a blind veteran who umpires the neighborhood boys' street games, to the bereaved families Marie meets when she works for the local undertaker, to her gradual discovery of her brother's closeted homosexuality, and to her aging mother's death, the story keeps reminding us of how much of life is coming to terms with the "ills that flesh is heir to," and also how resilience grows in the midst of loss.  Because much of the story represents the vantage point of a child only partially protected from hard things, it invites us to reflect on how children absorb large and hard truths and learn to cope with them. 

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Immortal Bird: A Family Memoir

Weber, Doron

Last Updated: Feb-10-2014
Annotated by:
Schilling, Carol

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir

Summary:

Damon Weber's proud father, Doron, has written a searing memoir that enfolds a story of parental love and loss into a medical exposé. By the time Damon turned four, he had two open-heart surgeries to correct a congenital malformation that affected circulation to his lungs. His parents were led to believe that after the surgeries, their effervescent, sociable, academically and artistically talented son was set for life. However, as Damon turned 12, they became concerned about what his father calls "his unsprung height," his shortness of breath, and a strange protrusion in his abdomen (40). Returning to his attending physician, they were surprised that she withheld information from them about a condition known as PLE (protein-losing entropy), which can manifest months or years after the kind of surgery (Fontan) their son underwent. PLE enlarges the liver and allows proteins to leak from the intestines. Without adequate protein, Damon's body could not grow. His father worried that they might have passed the established window of opportunity to treat the complication.

The memoir, which reads like an extended eulogy to a beloved son, fuses scenes of family life with difficult medical decisions aimed at reversing the effects of PLE. However, none of the interventions succeed, leaving a heart transplant as Damon's last hope. As Weber recounts each decision leading to the transplant, he exposes flaws in the way hospital systems operate, in the way families are treated, and in the care provided by the medical team that lobbied to perform the transplant. Damon died after his transplant physician made herself scarce after misdiagnosing a post-operative complication, and an inattentive hospital staff ignored his parents' justifiable alerts to ominous symptoms. Scenes of the hospital staff waiting impatiently at the door to Damon's room to remove the machines sustaining and monitoring him, as his distraught parents say good-bye, are disturbing. When the Webers initiate a lawsuit, the transplant physician cannot locate Damon's medical records. The narrative fully absorbs Weber's sorrow and anger.

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The Last Eleven Days

Coe, Sue

Last Updated: Feb-03-2014
Annotated by:
Aull, Felice

Primary Category: Visual Arts / Painting/Drawing

Genre: Charcoal

Summary:

Artist Sue Coe's mother Ellen was 64 years old when she was diagnosed with terminal cancer. The artist and her sister went to Liverpool to be with their mother at home, since Ellen did not wish to spend her last days in hospice. Sue Coe documented her mother's last days by drawing her, producing the series, "The Last 11 Days: July 20th to July 31, 1995." In the first drawing, dated July 20 (first drawing, right side), Ellen was still at the hospice. The drawing concentrates on face and hand, which are also the main features of other drawings in the series. The hand is large and bony as it is brought to Ellen's mouth, which is partially covered by the hand. Ellen's eyes are wide open and express anxiety and fear.

In a drawing dated July 31 (last drawing, left), the last day of Ellen's life, the artist's face and hands loom large in the right foreground while in the left rear the mother lies in bed, a small thin figure, barely awake, mouth open, her large skeletal hands resting on the blanket. The artist's face is thoughtful, sad, resigned--her thoughts seem to be drifting.

Another drawing, dated July 29 shows the artist's sister cradling Ellen in her arms, supporting her head. The mother's eyes are closed and she appears peaceful, comfortable. Of this scene, Coe writes that her sister was "reading a Stephen King novel behind the pillow. That's the only way she could survive, reading a Stephen King novel that just made her mind go blank." (National Museum for Women in the Arts Magazine, Holiday, 2005, p.20)

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Open Heart

Yehoshua, A. B.

Last Updated: Nov-30-2013
Annotated by:
McEntyre, Marilyn

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Summary:

Benjamin Rubin is completing his surgical residency in a Tel Aviv hospital when the director of the hospital asks him to accompany him and his wife to India to rescue their daughter who is critically ill.  This invitation distresses him, as he recognizes in it a way of removing him from competition for a position in surgery at the hospital.  He makes the trip, however, and is entranced by Indian culture and mysticism, and, eventually, not by the daughter but by the mother he accompanied.  Back in Tel Aviv, he has a brief affair with the mother, moves into an apartment she owns, leaving his mother's home, and, to allay his obsession with an unavailable woman, marries an independent-minded woman who has also traveled in India and absorbed Buddhist spirituality and Eastern philosophy she discovered there.  Working as an anesthesiologist, Benjy continues in that setting, conflicted about both work and life, unable to connect deeply with any of those whose love he has received or sought.  Eventually his wife leaves with their baby daughter to return to India, where she has found a spiritual home, and Benjy remains in a divided state of mind in a divided country where his own spiritual heritage remains to be plumbed.

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Epileptic

B., David

Last Updated: Nov-10-2013
Annotated by:
Aull, Felice

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Graphic Memoir

Summary:

First published in France as a six-volume series from 1996-2003, this narrative is often referred to as an autobiographical graphic novel, but it is more accurately described as a graphic memoir. The author, born Pierre-François Beauchard, tells and draws the story of his family's life with the author's older brother, Jean-Christophe, whom we meet on the first page, in the year 1994: "It takes a moment for me to recognize the guy who just walked in. It's my brother . . . The back of his head is bald, from all the times he's fallen. He's enormously bloated from medication and lack of exercise." Flashback to 1964 when the author is five years old and his seven-year-old brother begins to have frequent grand mal epilepsy seizures. There follows the parents' mostly fruitless search for treatment to control the seizures, including: possible brain surgery which Jean-Christophe refuses in favor of an attempt at zen macrobiotics (this seems to work for six-months), consultation with a psychic, Swedenborgian spiritualism, magnetism, alchemy, exorcism by a priest, psychiatry (a different form of exorcism!).

Jean-Christophe's illness transforms family life as other children mock and fear the boy, the family moves to an isolated area, joins communes, and attempts to cope with Jean-Christophe's increasingly disturbed and disturbing behavior that alternates between passivity and physical aggression. The author has vivid visions and dreams and changes his name to David ("a symbolic act. I've won the war [against the threat of acquiring epilepsy" (164)]; his sister Florence suffers from constant anxiety; his mother grieves for many months after her father dies. As an adolescent and young man Jean-Christophe spends time in several institutions for handicapped individuals as well as at home, where he lives a desultory existence that is interspersed with violence toward the author and his father.

David escapes to Paris, living in a studio apartment paid for by his father, reading, writing stories, drawing, and attending classes at the Duperre School of Applied Arts. "I had to draw and write constantly. I had to fill my time in order to prevent my brother's disease from reaching me" (276). He is lonely but avoids people, feels guilty for neglecting his brother and ‘picking on' him yet is fearful that he too will be taken over by epilepsy, or death. Equally upsetting is when David discovers writings by Jean-Christophe: "He speaks of his despair and loneliness and the words might as well have come from my pen" (316). On and off, in moving displays of empathy, the author attempts to understand what happens to his brother during the seizures -- is he conscious, where does he go, does he die temporarily?

Within the narrative are intercalated multigenerational family histories that include two world wars, and European philosophical and cultural movements that influenced his parents and their search for treatments. The final section of Epileptic relates in words and images the author's adult life as he becomes a commercial artist; struggles through several relationships with women; his own infertility; his ever-present confusion, anger, and misery about his brother's illness; and his founding with five colleagues of the independent publishing house, L'Association: "It's the creation of L'Association that saves me" (327).

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