Reviewed by Magdalena Ball
The Year My Family Unravelled
by Cynthia Dearborn
May 2023, ISBN: 9781922930200, Paperback, 320 pages, $34.99
Cynthia Dearborn’s The Year My Family Unravelled can be a little relentless at times. The challenges Dearborn goes through in dealing with her father Russell’s vascular dementia seems to go on and on, scenarios repeating themselves with increasing disorder. On the other hand, Dearborn writes with such clarity, and with so much good-natured acceptance and linguistic beauty, that the revelations which pepper this book are like rockets propelling the narrative. It’s a real skill, allowing the book to take on the rhythm and pacing of Russell’s slow decline while incorporating a modern perspective and synthesis. Dearborn perfectly balances the growing severity of her situation with empathy and respect.
Ostensibly the book is set through a year in Dearborn’s life, where her mission is to move her increasingly frail father and stepmother to move into an aged-care facility. As an ex-pat myself, I related to the tug-of-war between countries and responsibilities and the sense of guilt inherent in leaving an ailing parent. The beautiful descriptions that run throughout the book are suited to the tick-tock between desperation and dedication. Dearborn’s father, a “one-man jet of joy” with a large library of classic poetry in his head, is always delighted to see or speak to his daughter:
‘Cynnn-thi-aa!’ My father makes my name a melody, an adoring decrescendo of delight. ‘You came all the way from Australia! How did you know I was here?’
There is a strong bond between the two, but the dementia is really just the tip of an iceberg of pain and neglect. In addition to his dementia, Russell has OCD, is a disordered hoarder, has diabetes and can’t be trusted to dose himself with insulin only once, and is becoming dangerously paranoid, slowly surrounding himself and the house with a range of makeshift weapons. At one point Dearborn has to secretly remove his guns and a large stock of ammunition, and when she tries to remove his insulin as well to protect him from double dosing, he threatens her life. The already fraught situation is compounded when Dearborn’s beloved stepmother Beth is diagnosed with lung cancer and moves in with her son, leaving Dearborn to manage her father alone. The situation continues to become worse as Dearborn struggles to obtain power of attorney, to find a safe place for her father, who is in denial of his situation, or to keep both of them from getting seriously hurt. Alongside Russell’s story is Dearborn’s own character arc as she begins to explore her own difficult childhood and the legacy of abuse from both of her parents:
I’ve automatically turned myself into a smooth, clean shell; an empty husk; safe from hurt. No feelings; no needs; no wants; no self.
It takes years of practice to master disappearing. Then years of practice to master speaking out, years that can unravel in minutes if you’re fool enough to stay at your parent’s house (40)
Some of the abuse is dire, and however much love permeates this book, the neglect and dysfunction is shocking at times. As Russell’s dementia begins to progress, his propensity to violence is hard to witness. No matter how bad it gets, Dearborn never loses sight of the bigger picture of of how this family’s struggle is exacerbated by systemic flaws in aged care, in legal processes of guardianship, and in the whole framework that surrounds the way mental health and aging is treated. Dearborn is well-supported by friends and sometimes (not always) by family, however, the process is made so much harder than it needs to be through a welter of bureaucracy and by chronic mismanagement at the hospital that is sometimes farcical. But what really shines through this book is the power of love and forgiveness. One of the most memorable moments in the book is when Russell apologises for not being a good father:
He reached over, gave my forearm a squeeze. A vastness opened, a crater, across which memories paraded. Off-hand fragments, traumatic interactions, hazy ones, lucid ones, rages, spankings, all formed an instant chorus line, as if all those years they’d been waiting in the wings for that very moment to step on stage”
And just like that, in a parked Pontiac on Northeast 52nd Street, with no advanced warning, no detailed discussion, no expectations for the future, I did. I forgave him all of it, everything in one fell swoop. The chorus line of wrongs took a bow. Not because Dad said the crucial word but because he truly meant it.
I stepped out of that car into a daze of stars. (290)
If you’ve ever dealt with an aging, ill or emotionally difficult parent, The Year My Family Unravelled will be an emotional and occasionally disturbing read, but it is also a book that is uplifting and powerful, full of moments of stunning transcendence that permeate the reading:
I noticed a mass of small somethings, darting and flashing, flicking and turning. Tiny river creatures bursting with energy and verve. Their lively swarm; the water thrashing along; and above us, the breeze, the birds, the swaying branches of the stately firs; and I understand, with more than my mind, that I too was part of that powerful rush of life. (89)