Wednesday, December 14, 2011

So Far Away

So Far Away: A Daughter's Memoir of Life, Loss, and Love 
by Christine W. Hartmann
Vanderbilt University Press; November 18, 2011
Trade Paperback, 224 pages
ISBN-13: 9780826517968

Christine Hartmann's mother valued control above all else, yet one event appeared beyond her command: the timing of her own death. Not to be denied there either, two decades in advance Irmgard Hartmann chose the date on which to end her life. And her next step was to tell her daughter all about it. For twenty years, Irmgard maintained an unwavering goal, to commit suicide at age seventy. She managed her chronic hypertension, stayed healthy and active, and lived life to the fullest. Meanwhile, Christine fought desperately against the decision. When Irmgard wouldn't listen, the only way to remain part of her life was for Christine to swallow her mother's plans--hook, line, and sinker.
Christine's father, as it turned out, prepared too slowly for old age. Before he had made any decision, fate disabled him through a series of strokes. Confined to a nursing home, severely impaired by dementia and frustrated by his circumstances, his life epitomized the predicament her mother wanted to avoid.
So Far Away gives us an intimate view of a person interacting with and reacting to her parents at the ends of their lives. In a richly detailed, poignant story of family members' separate yet interwoven journeys, it underscores the complexities and opportunities that life presents each one of us.

My Thoughts:

So Far Away: A Daughter's Memoir of Life, Loss, and Love by Christine W. Hartmann is a heart wrenchingly personal and honest account of the last years of the author's parents lives and how she handled their deaths. Her parents approached their eventual decline and demise in dramatically different ways. Christina's mother did not want to become a burden on anyone so she planned to commit suicide by age 70. But, inexplicably, she let Christine know about her plan twenty years before this. Her father wanted to enjoy his life as long as possible and he put off his plans to move into a retirement community as long as possible. In fact he put it off too long.
Losing your parents is difficult no matter what the circumstances are, and it is something that most of us will face at some point. So Far Away is a very personal, introspective, and honest record of how Christine Hartmann handled the very different deaths of her parents and her emotional turmoil at that time. Sharing her story and the struggles she had opens up the discussion for all of us to prepare to form our own opinions about how we are going to approach grief and loss.
It was perhaps more difficult for me to read about her mother's planned suicide and I found it almost unbelievable that a parent in their mid-50's would tell a child, in her 20's, that they are planning their suicide before they reach age 70. It seems such a heartless thing to do... especially to then, subsequently, expect your child to support your decision. It was an unbelievable burden to place on anyone. Perhaps that is because I know that I, and I would think most of us, will be more like her father, trying to live our lives to the fullest as long as possible.
There is one major difference between how Hartmann approached the death of her parents and how I know I will approach the death of my parents and, eventually, my own death: I have a strong Christian faith. I would never consider, as Hartmann's mother did, throwing away something as precious as the gift of life. Having a faith and belief in something higher than yourself actually gives you strength every day to handle things that seem impossible.  
This is a extremely well written memoir. It is profound and genuine. It is not light hearted or easy to read. The situations and emotions within are very real and sometimes raw. It is such an honest account that even though it's not an easy book to read, it is most certainly a worthwhile book to read. Certainly, if you have aging or elderly parents, you will sympathize with Christine and her emotional turmoil during several very difficult years.
Be sure to read the introduction quoted below.
Very Highly Recommended  

Christine W. Hartmann, Research Health Scientist, ENR Memorial Veterans Hospital, Bedford, Massachusetts, and Assistant Professor, Boston University, Boston, Massachusetts, received her PhD at the Bryn Mawr Graduate School of Social Work and Social Research. She has published numerous articles on healthcare quality improvement, focusing particularly on long-term care.
Disclosure: I received a copy of this book for review purposes.

Christine W. Hartmann’s TLC Book Tours TOUR STOPS:

Monday, November 21st:  Peeking Between the Pages
Wednesday, November 23rd:  I Am A Reader, Not A Writer – author Q&A
Thursday, November 24th:  Life in Review
Monday, November 28th:  Boarding in My Forties
Tuesday, November 29th:  Book Hounds
Wednesday, November 30th:  Colloquium
Thursday, December 1st:  Acting Balanced
Monday, December 5th:  The Lost Entwife
Wednesday, December 7th:  Patricia’s Wisdom
Monday, December 12th:  Book Dilettante
Tuesday, December 13th:  Luxury Reading
Wednesday, December 14th:  She Treads Softly
Vanderbilt University Press  ;   The Introduction from So Far Away, pages xi - xiii

"Parents encourage or discourage, praise or scold, remain silent or yell, and yet despite these influences, children grow up to have their own unique quirks and personality traits. In part, we become who we are to protect ourselves from the people we love who can hurt us. I didn’t quite grow up the way my parents expected. But by their own admission, they didn’t fulfill all their parents’ expectations either. Neither did their parents... and so on.
"My mother always wondered how she raised a daughter who enjoyed hugging so much. She never liked long embraces with anyone over the age of four. I could never get enough of them. I lived as a young adult in a very conservative rural area where physical affection was traditionally avoided, and I suffered severe withdrawal from lack of contact. I even took up martial arts as a hobby partially because it allowed me just to touch someone. Periodic sprains and fractures seemed a small price to pay.
"It just goes to show that not everything turns out as planned. At least, that has been a central theme in my adult life. Nothing prepared me for the radical but methodical approach my mother took toward her own aging. Or
not aging, which was actually her point. I’m not talking about plastic surgery to lift her chin or the daily consumption of a bowl of oat bran. She intended to implement a more aggressive strategy for dealing with the uncertainty of growing old. And I rebelled against her in an extraordinary battle of wills.
"My father, on the other hand, always avoided setting a detailed agenda for his senior years. He lived in the moment, never looking far ahead, and we both anticipated his easy and pleasant retirement. But a series of sudden, apocalyptic events derailed his dream and both our lives.
"My parents emigrated to the United States from Germany in the late 1950s. They met here, and my brother and I were born in Toledo, Ohio. Approximately ten years after they married, they divorced. Both entered their sixties in relatively good health, except that my mother had chronic high blood pressure and my father had high cholesterol.
"The true story I tell here (I have sometimes changed names of individuals and locations) focuses on my parents as they neared the ends of their lives—the time between 2003 and 2008. During these years my mother determinedly put in motion the plan she had hatched decades earlier, and I shouldered the burden of my father’s rapidly deteriorating life.

"Despite describing my parents in detail, this book is chiefly a narrative about me. I originally intended to tell
their tales, from their perspectives. I did not get far with that, before having to interject fiction, assumption, repetition, and sheer fantasy into the mix. So instead I recount here, in my own voice, what I know best: myself, and how I reacted to experiences my parents and I shared.
"Our family issues in many respects mirror those faced by most people. We had our measure of dysfunction; each of us carried some emotional baggage passed down from previous generations; we grieved deeply and loved as best we could; and we feared losing each other and losing the structure of life that bound us together. If you identify with some elements of this story, be kind to yourself as you read.
"Sometimes we think we know how things are going to turnout - a drive to the grocery store, next year’s vacation, the book lying on the bedside table. They all seem so predictable. And having a predictable ending can make the entire process more enjoyable, or at least more comforting.

"But sometimes the process itself, not the foreseeable consequences, sets the tone, allows for change, and provides new opportunities for growth. My parents’ final journeys were not easy, for them or for me. Yet each of us achieved a large measure of personal growth in the process, despite the suffering, and perhaps even because of it.
"We all face permanent loss in our lives - loss of parents, loss of other relatives, loss of close friends. The process wrenches our souls, but it also reveals them. In this book I tell a personal story, but I believe the lessons are collective. When the time comes to deal with inevitable loss, solace and companionship may be found within these pages." 

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this book for the tour. I'm featuring your review on TLC's Facebook page today.