Slow Dancing with a Stranger by Meryl Comer
Nonfiction – Memoir
Finished on February 13, 2015
Rating: 3/5 (Good)
The man I live with is not the man I fell in love with and married.
He has slowly been robbed of something we all take for granted: the ability to navigate the mundane activities of living—bathing, shaving, dressing, feeding, and using the bathroom. His inner clock is confused and can’t be reset. His eyes are vacant and unaware—as if an internal window shade veils our access.
Before I grasped what was happening, I was hurt and annoyed by my husband’s behavior. Those feelings dissolved into unconditional empathy once I understood the cruelty of his diagnosis: early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. He was fifty-eight.
From Emmy award-winning broadcast journalist and leading Alzheimer’s advocate Meryl Comer comes a profoundly intimate and unflinching account of her husband’s battle with Alzheimer’s disease, one of today’s most pressing—and least-understood—health epidemics.
When Meryl Comer’s husband, Dr. Harvey Gralnick, chief of hematology and oncology at the National Institutes of Health, began forgetting routine things and demonstrating abrupt changes in behavior, doctors were confounded as to what was wrong. Diagnoses ranged from stress and depression to Lyme disease, from pernicious anemia to mad cow’s disease supposedly acquired from a trip to London. Finally, after years of inconclusive tests, he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, a seemingly impossible disease for a man in his prime.
Comer gave up her television career and for the next two decades cared for Harvey in their home, tending to his every need while watching him regress into an emotionally distant and sometimes violent stranger. “The man I live with is not the man I fell in love with and married,” she writes. “He has slowly been robbed of what we all take for granted—the ability to navigate the mundane activities of daily living: bathing, shaving, dressing, feeding, and using the bathroom. His inner clock is confused and can’t be reset. His eyes are vacant and unaware.”
In Slow Dancing with a Stranger, Comer brings readers face-to-face with Alzheimer’s, detailing the realities, its stressful emotional and financial hardships for families, as well as the limitations of doctors and assisted living and long term care facilities to manage difficult patient behaviors. With candor and grace, Comer chronicles her personal experiences—her mistakes, her heartbreaks, her minor victories—to paint an intimate and moving portrait of Alzheimer’s and, in the process, she reveals the truth about the disease and everyone it affects.
Six years ago I read Lisa Genova’s amazing debut novel, Still Alice. I couldn’t put the book down, reading it in less than two days, and I gave it a perfect 5/5 rating. Genova's story put a face on Alzheimer’s, reading more like a memoir than a novel. When I came across Meryl Comer’s memoir, Slow Dancing with a Stranger, I was immediately intrigued, eager to read another account of one couple’s experience with this awful disease. I was also curious to see how a real account compares to Genova’s work of fiction.
Slow Dancing with a Stranger is sad, sad, sad. Some reviews say that the book provides inspiration and hope, but I found it bleak and depressing. Told from Comer’s point of view (as opposed to that of the afflicted, as in Still Alice), we see what an exhausting and depressing role the caretaker is thrown into. I don’t remember a lot of violence on the part of Alice in Genova’s book, but Comer’s husband becomes very angry and, quite often, extremely violent. I can understand the incredible financial burden for the care of someone suffering from Alzheimer’s, especially for two decades, but I can’t begin to imagine what it must be like to take on the physical and emotional burden to care for that person in one’s own home with the assistance of just a couple of nurses and aides.
On the unfairness of the disease:
Neither a scientist nor a neurologist, I have spent close to two decades trying to decipher what’s going on in my husband’s head. How hard and unfair it is for such a smart man to lose pieces of his intellect and independence as the circuitry of his brain misfires and corrodes. No new short-term memories stick: his internal navigational compass has shut down. His disease is my crossword puzzle.On the loss of friendships:
It was too disconcerting to walk through our door and see someone who was once just like them being destroyed in slow motion by an insidious disease for which there is no cure. I understand how they feel, even though I was left behind too and I’m not sick. How do I write about a twenty-year gaping hole in our lives—an intimate part of our history—when it’s still not over?On the violence:
The nurses and I worked together, always aware that Harvey could strike out without any warning. I brought in an instructor for a session in self-defense and to demonstrate how to unlock Harvey’s vice-like grip. My personal survival regimen—a weekly weight-training session with a former pro athlete nicknamed Huggy, who pushed me to my physical max and pumped up my courage.On the emptiness and loneliness:
Winter approached, and soon the holidays were upon us…. As his brain shut down, so did his vision. He lost much of his ability to speak. One of the only words he could still say was his name. Our twenty-third wedding anniversary and my birthday went by as forgotten, irrelevant dates.
There was a deep emptiness in my life; sometimes I felt as if I didn’t exist.
Good, but not great. Like Genova’s novel Still Alice, Slow Dancing with a Stranger is a very readable (yet brutally honest) account of a couple dealing with a spouse’s decline from Alzheimer’s. However, I never felt an emotional pull while reading Comer’s memoir, in spite of all the passages I marked with Post-It notes. Perhaps that’s the difference, at least in this case, between fact and fiction. Both books are medically and practically informative (I really need to look into long-term health care insurance!), and yet Lisa’s book tugged at my heartstrings, while Comer’s held me at an arm’s length. If you haven’t read either of these two books, I strongly recommend Still Alice. And yes, the book is better than the movie, in spite of Julianne Moore’s amazing performance as Alice.
Click here to read my review (and lovely comment from the author) of Still Alice.
Click here to listen to Meryl Comer's interview with Diane Rehm on NPR.