reviewed by Phyllis Barber
Old age is a terrain most of us have not traveled. We’ve not been there before (and most people think they’ll never get there, either, keeping the reality, as well as the idea, at bay. Except, there are those times when a brush with old age cannot be helped!). Old age is a foreign territory. It is waiting for us all, lurking like a monster in a cave, waiting for the evil chance of appropriating the innocent. Old age includes such things as Alzheimer’s, dementia, brittle bones, faint hearts, hammer toes, and the list goes on. Therefore, against age-old advice and old wives’ tales, it is not easy to “grow old gracefully.”
Zoe Murdock has deeply contemplated and written in great detail about Aaron Young, a man in his 70s (though he can’t remember his exact age) who has entered the interior of Alzheimer’s. This unique characterization, told from the gradually-more-tangled mind of Aaron, gives the reader an idea of what it is like to be in a world becoming more confused, even when the person with Alzheimer’s only wants order and simplicity in his/her life.
Aaron keeps forgetting why he is doing whatever he’s doing. He starts out somewhere and then curves off to the left or to the right haphazardly, trying to find his way, wondering where he is. He is uprooted against his wishes—losing his truck because he forgets the oil, selling the home he and his wife built which has become too big and unmanageable since she died, therefore becoming bereft of his sense of security. He’s moving into territory he’s never traveled before, though he’s not sure whether or not he’s been here before now. Aaron is a man who only wants to be warm, at peace, and to have someone love him with no restrictions. Thus, he is totally disoriented by the new reality of his life.
In the book, when he decides to jump once again on the “bouncer” in his backyard, to do it in the buff because that’s how people were born and are most natural and free (according to his way of thinking), the children of the neighborhood fling their clothes off and join him in the melee. They laugh. They jump. They bounce. All together.
His problem, however, is not a small one. He has to deal with the neighbor next door who has it in for him already, being he can’t stand the yellow light she leaves on at night which glares and keeps him from relaxing into sleep. He’s even gone over to her front porch in the middle of the night, twisted the bulb from its shining, and hidden it in the bushes. Therefore, he begins with trouble. Even though she has a crabby disposition from the get go, this neighbor has little or no use for Aaron. She has her own interpretations: (1) a naked man does not jump on a trampoline with naked children; (2) this act must be reported to the police; (3) of course, the man jumping on the trampoline, namely Aaron, has subversive ideas in mind and will carry them out in the secrecy of his home.
Of course. There is no such thing as jumping for joy for this neighbor. Even though Aaron is in total bliss, even after the children scatter to their homes, frightened by the neighbor, he is soon arrested and taken to prison where he fares badly. The inmates have heard he’s a child molester. There is a code of honor, even among thieves.
Because a former acquaintance who happens to be on the police force understands the perimeters of his disease, Aaron is released and taken to his daughter’s home. But his lot is to run away from any place that tries to hold him in; any place he does not want to be. He wants to escape Sarah’s basement. He wants to escape anyone who tells him how he should live. He wants to live next to the land and be a free man.
In and out of many scrapes with safety, Aaron plows forward, only to be stopped by his addled brain and his human condition. His salvation, in this state, is his family, who cares what is happening to the man once known as their father. He continues to love his daughter and grandchildren despite wanting freedom out there somewhere.
Zoe Murdock must be congratulated for her persistent dedication to developing the character of a man with Alzheimer’s. This is forbidden territory for most of us, but Murdock has been brave in her belief that there is much to know about someone who is losing one’s mind. If anyone wants to know more about what this journey must be like, Man in the Mirror is an excellent book to read.