The Big Idea: Christina Consolino
Few things in life are harder than watching your parents age. Author Christina Consolino is no stranger to this struggle, and explores the difficult topic of her own parents declining with age in her newest novel, The Weight We Carry. Read on to see what drove Consolino to share this deeply personal story.
Years before The Weight We Carry existed in draft form, I watched an ABC report with Cynthia McFadden. In the video, McFadden and Blane Wilson (whose mother, Lawanda, had Alzheimer’s) spend 12 minutes as a person with dementia. Goggles limit their sight, gloves dampen their sense of touch, and headphones deliver incessant noise, all of which visibly frustrate the pair and decrease their ability to concentrate. McFadden and Wilson are each given five tasks, but neither has the ability to follow through on them. The point of the experiment? To help McFadden and Wilson—and the viewer—understand what someone with dementia is going through and increase awareness, empathy, and compassion.
At the time the report aired, my mom’s indecisiveness and forgetfulness concerned my sisters and me. By fall 2014, when Mom got lost going back to her hotel room at my sister’s wedding, it was clear she needed help. My sisters and I knew what we needed to do. The real question was, how? Up until then, Mom had been resistant to listening to our concerns about her memory, always pushing them away or getting angry and agitated when the subject arose.
As it turns out, during Dad’s health crisis in summer 2015, Mom made a large error in judgment, and we told her that Dad’s doctors had suggested evaluations for them both. Later that summer, after an appointment with a senior specialist, a cognitive evaluation, and an MRI, we received the news: probable Alzheimer’s disease.
None of us were surprised; all of us accepted it.
Except Mom and Dad.
Even with a diagnosis in hand, they refused to see it as a time to take Mom’s health seriously in a way that neither had done before. Stubborn and hardheaded barely scratch the surface of how our parents approached this diagnosis, which meant the burden (dare I say weight?) fell to their daughters.
While trying to work and care for our children (ages 13 and under), my sisters and I alternated trips to visit Mom and Dad—everyone was either out of state or over an hour away—to nurse Dad back to health and schedule appointments for Mom. We didn’t have all the answers, but we wanted to be proactive: get Mom on medication, help slow Mom’s decline, maybe extend Mom’s good years for a little longer so she could enjoy time with us and her seven grandchildren, the flower garden surrounding her house, and the books she held so dear. We begged our parents to think about selling their house, look into independent living communities with a continuum of care, or build an addition onto my home.
They did none of those things. And as Mom’s disease progressed, which might have explained some of her resistance, Dad’s denial grew even stronger. Maybe it was indicative of his generation, maybe he didn’t have the capability of truly understanding what was happening, maybe he just hoped for a different outcome. Regardless, he was content with the status quo, doing very little to prepare himself or Mom for the future.
The fall after that harrowing summer, I had to purge myself of all the angst, anger, and anguish, and I wrote the first draft of The Weight We Carry. I let it sit for years, not sure if I ever wanted to bring the story to life, to relive that heavy, chaotic summer. But as time passed, I realized our story, one that was so different from what was available, needed to be told.
Which meant that during revision, instead of stripping out the denial, the hardheadedness, and the other frustrating characteristics that had made my sisters and me feel helpless, I leaned into them, bringing to life a few characters who resemble my parents more than I first intended.
On my second pass, I thought about another side of our story that should see the light of day—the sibling relationship. Infusing humor and levity, I painted a true-to-life rendering of how my sisters and I came together during that summer of crisis. Our days were long, tempers high, and yet, we found comfort and congeniality in each other through texts, emails, blog posts, and phone calls.
Of course, revision of the novel took much more than two passes, but in the end, the story held tight to what I wanted readers to understand: the turmoil that comes when parents refuse to acknowledge changes in abilities and behaviors, how difficult it can be to get to the diagnosis stage of a disease, and that denial is a long road to traverse. But it also spoke of the unique bond of siblings and how, when crises arise, being in it together is crucial.
At the end of the ABC video, Blane Wilson refers to those living with dementia and says, “They need your help. They need your understanding.” I hope The Weight We Carry serves in that regard. But I hope the novel also drives home the point that family members who step up need help and understanding too. Acceptance, though difficult, is important, as is trust in the people who love you. Without those, the weight carried by the family is almost too much to bear.