New Bern, NC – When Tommy Hays' father started showing early signs of Alzheimer's, Hay's inclination as a writer was to document. But what happened as he began to write this proposed book centered around his family's experiences couldn't have been too surprising when dealing with an illness that just doesn't get better.
"What happened was I, as a writer, and sensing that my dad was on his way out, I wanted to record as much as possible in terms of scenes and dialogues, sort of a dramatic rendering of my father's last couple of years. So I started writing basically creative non-fiction about my father and my family dealing with him but over time it became too heavy, too depressing."
But with a push from several other people Hays decided to write a fictional book informed on the experiences of his father while focusing instead on the caregiver. It also adopts an attitude that Hays saw in a doctor working for a non-profit in his home of Asheville that cares in-part for Alzheimer's patients.
"She said, "in fact, Tommy " and this is from a gerontologist who deals with Alzheimer's every day she said "Alzheimer's isn't all bad." And I just thought, man, that's quite a statement coming from a doctor who sees several Alzheimer's patients each day, and I think what she was saying is there are still opportunities, things can still happen."
Hays produced the book "The Pleasure Was Mine" which is told in the voice of Prate, a 75-year-old man whose wife Irene is in the mid-stages of Alzheimer's. He retired from his house painting business in order to care for her when she first started exhibiting symptoms but he finally agrees to move her to a nursing home after she wanders from the house in her nightclothes on a 19-degree night. The book depicts Prate's efforts to deal with Irene's deterioration while, at the same time, trying to live up to that doctor's declaration that "Alzheimer's isn't all bad." In this scene from "The Pleasure was Mine" Prate has taken Irene to the nursing home's dining room where he has a confrontation with one of the staff.
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The book gives Irene plenty of chances to show people "the woman I was," such as this short interaction between Irene and Prate when they travel from their Greenville, South Carolina home to visit their son Newell in the Asheville area.
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The book is dotted with humorous moments like that a difficult task considering no one would ever suggest there's anything funny about Alzheimer's. But Hays has managed to craft a book that allows a reader to laugh along with the characters rather than at them. He said he was able to do that by focusing not on the illness but on other people's beliefs about the toll the illness takes.
"But, no, the humor for me was more about the surprise of the other characters in response to their assumptions about what Alzheimer's is, and I think we all have assumptions about any disease and we tend to see the disease rather than the individual because that's the easiest way to think about it but its not fair to the person who has the disease."
In "The Pleasure Was Mine," Hays has crafted what he set out to do revealing the person behind the disease and fighting against our assumptions about the disease, though at the same time not sugarcoating Alzheimer's ultimate effect.
"Things can still happen, there are still possibilities, and that we can't make any assumptions about this loved one who, in many ways, seems on the way away from us."
In a scene toward the end of the book, Hays writes a passage that crystallizes his belief that with Alzheimer's "things can still happen." In this scene Prate has taken Irene out for a day trip and they've ended up at a restaurant Prate is surprised to see still in business after not having patronized it in 15 years... complete with a waitress who remembers the couple after the passage of all that time.
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Tommy Hays lives in Asheville and is the author of "The Pleasure Was Mine" published by St. Martin's Griffin. His book will be the topic of discussion for the Wayne County Reads program starting February 7. Hays will speak at the Kick Off Event on that day at 7:00 pm at Moffat Auditorium at Wayne Community College in Goldsboro. He'll also take part in events on the 8th at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base and Mount Olive College. I'm George Olsen.