Mary MacCracken writes with honest poignancy in beautiful prose in The Memory of All That: A Love Story about Alzheimer’s as she shares her observations and tribulations of her beloved husband’s journey into dementia. The book’s dedication sets the tone: “For Cal MacCracken, May all know love like ours.” The title is borrowed from George and Ira Gershwin’s song “They Can’t Take That Away from Me”: “The way you wear your hat, the way you sip your tea, the memory of all that, no, no, they can’t take that away from me.” As I read this memoir, I couldn’t stop that tune from bouncing through my mind.
Mary’s husband, Cal, is a brilliant inventor, holder of 80 patents, an athlete, active and dynamic, even for a while after the dreaded diagnosis. They fell in love while both were still married to their first spouses. They had seven children between them, all were mostly in college or beyond by the time Mary and Call married.
The story begins with brief descriptions of their early adulthood accomplishments and progresses to their mutual attraction, marriage several years later, and then the Alzheimer’s diagnosis. At first Cal is determined to beat the disease. Mary wants to believe he can do it. But they soon discover it’s bigger than both of them. They find ways to live with it as long as they can. Language became harder; increasingly he can’t find words and she provides the missing words for him—though often she has no idea what he’s trying to say, and unfinished sentences dangle in thin air.
Cal’s younger son, Mark, works with him at CalMac (still a thriving company in N.J.), and was the first of the adult children to tell Mary, “Something’s going on with Dad.” Then Cal’s oldest daughter, Joan, a medical doctor, tells Mary, after spending Christmas together, “Dad needs to see a neurologist.” Cal is resistive to the idea for many months. A summer walk with his two sons convinces him to follow through with the appointment. A couple months after receiving the diagnosis, Mary invites all their children home for Thanksgiving to inform them together. The news stuns their adult children, though they are all supportive and kind.
The following New Year’s Eve, Mary and Cal go to a dinner/dance party. It proves to be the last party they attend. Cal is so inappropriate and confused that they must leave early. During the next few months Mary investigates several potential Continuous Care Retirement Communities. Through all this, Cal is still driving despite increasing forgetfulness, increased irritability, and a few fender benders. After Cal crashes their old family car while picking up takeout dinners near their home, Mark tells Cal he is done driving. Mary and Cal finish closing up their family home over that Thanksgiving and Mary makes the final drive to their new home in New Hampshire.
Mary acknowledges her limitations and makes the necessary changes before it is an emergency. It’s a hard road but proper preparations can make it a bit easier. Their children’s visits help make Cal’s final years safer and peaceful for them. A few weeks before Cal dies, he tells Mary, “I am glad to be married to you.” She blinks back tears and replies, “Me, too.” They were married 31 years when he dies.
Threaded throughout the book are reminders that increased behaviors such as short tempers, resistance to change, increased need for constant attention, and loss of speech are not our loved ones, but rather symptoms of Alzheimer’s. Also, the importance for caregivers to ask for and accept help before burning out is emphasized.
I chose to review this memoir to learn more about coping with dementia, and it was a difficult book for me to read since my dear husband also has Alzheimer’s. We still have some good days and many days that are not good; it is truly a horrendous disease. The Memory of All That, though not an easy read emotionally, will help anyone who is dealing with Alzheimer’s as well as anyone who is interested in learning more about the disease and its profound effect on families.