Sarah: What’s it like, Dad?
Dad: I don’t know. I guess sometimes it turns out that everything you thought about how the future would be just isn’t true.
In Tangles: A Story About Alzheimer’s, My Mother, and Me, Sarah Leavitt reveals how Alzheimer’s disease transformed her mother, Midge, and her family forever.
This memoir consists of three parts broken up into mini-vignettes; things unfold chronologically, for the most part.
Part One begins as a sort of extended flashback into Sarah’s childhood, where Midge is a passionate teacher, a lover of the outdoors, and a feisty, principled woman. We see Midge as the rock of the Leavitt family; she is the one her daughters turn to when they need support, despite the fact that their needs could not be more different. She is an intellectual partner and best friend to her husband. And she is a kind of gravitational pull that keeps her two sisters close. It is this rich portrait of Midge at the beginning of the memoir that makes the whole thing so effective; as Midge starts change in first subtle and then deeply saddening ways, we feel that we know Midge well enough to see that by the beginning of Part Two, she is slowly disappearing.
As her Alzheimer’s progresses through Parts Two and Three, one of the ways we come to recognize “new mom” (as Sarah later calls her), is her signature hand-clasp: elbows bent, two hands clasped in front of her chest, almost as if she is praying. Sarah mentions early on in Tangles that Midge’s hands were one of her favorite parts about her mother: “They weren’t pretty hands,” she writes. “They were strong hands. Mom hands.” (25). But when Sarah draws “new Mom’s” signature hand-clasp, there are no hands to be found: Midge’s arms just seem to bleed into one another at the ends, forming a sort of “W” between her bent elbows. It makes sense, in a way – the sicker Midge gets, the less of a mom she becomes. Sarah learns to clean and feed and groom her, and their roles as mother and daughter become knotted into an upside-down mess. “New Mom” is missing “mom hands” because she feels less and less like Sarah’s mother.