Acclaimed flutist Eugenia Zukerman writes about her journey with Alzheimer’s disease

Eugenia Zukerman

Like Falling through a Cloud describes the onset and progress of Alzheimer’s disease in a formidable and well-exercised mind: the one belonging to the decorated classical flutist,  former arts correspondent for CBS Sunday Morning and Ancramdale resident Eugenia Zukerman. While the book accumulated in real time – over the months that Zukerman endured the recognition of symptoms, a diagnosis and some hopeful therapy – its texture and design are far more literary-minded than a daily journal. Zukerman tells the story in poetry, predominantly – a skittering, short-line, incessantly rhymed and musical free verse that recalls many of the English language’s most musical poets: the Renaissance versifier John Skelton, Theodore Geisel, Ogden Nash and Gerard Manley Hopkins, whom Zukerman references.

In a contrary motion that J. S. Bach likely would have appreciated, Like Falling through a Cloud moves from an ethereal, poetic confusion in its earliest pages toward an all-too-grounded diagnostic clarity as the reality sinks in and the author advances, often with great reluctance, from consultation to consultation as the unnamable is named. The first few pages earnestly attempt to render the experience, the unmoored disorientation, the loss of language and coordinates, in a kind of concrete poetry. Gradually, the work becomes more prosaic, mostly because others – spouse, adult daughters, medical and psychiatric professionals – enter the frame with their concerns and influence.

Like Falling through a Cloud’s narrative is chronological but permissive, allowing frequent digressions and mode shifts, treks into symbolically rich dreams and memories and lyrical evocations of the author’s headspace. One imagines that its fractalized pastiche of event, language, interaction and disrupted memory is a pretty keen approximation of the medical condition it describes. It certainly rings true to my own experience of seeing my musician father through the stages of his disease.

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Acceptance is a rocky road, and in many episodes, Zukerman freely depicts herself as being ornery about it, resisting interventions, registering offense that she – a highly accomplished musician, writer and arts administrator – is increasingly perceived as “incompetent,” keeping many of her cognitive struggles between herself and her journal. Over time, she develops adaptive strategies. A few, but only a few, come from the cognitive behavioral therapy she is prescribed (because her anxiety, it is posited, exacerbates her disorientation). More effective strategies come from her lifelong passions: family, writing and music, especially the music of the great master of neural networks, J. S. Bach. (It was when my father finally stopped listening to Bach incessantly that I knew we had crossed into the final stage.)

In the book’s window of time, Zukerman’s 103-year-old mother passes away; Eugenia performs at the Kennedy Center; she moves upstate, all while navigating and learning to accept the uncertain future.

I’d like to tell that you there is a happy ending, but would you believe me? The author and her husband, Dick Novik, point out to me in our chat that promising treatments and even cures for Alzheimer’s are oft-touted and quite “in the news,” but actual response rates are bleak. “There will be no cure,” the 75-year-old Eugenia Zukerman told me with a calm finality, “in my lifetime.”

Like Falling through a Cloud will stand, however, not only as a uniquely lyrical memoir (her genre description, not mine), but also as a valuable subjective and anecdotal contribution to the clinical literature. When your book blurbs are heartfelt, substantive and written by the likes of Yo-Yo Ma, Erica Jong, Judy Collins, deans of major medical programs and the legendary pianist Yefim Bronfman, there is a very good chance that your memoir is going to fall into all the right hands – the hands that most need to hear it.

It is striking and kind of paradoxical that this intensely personal, diaristic narrative is written mostly in playful, musical verse.

I’ve always loved poetry and started writing it as a very young kid. I went to Barnard College and was playing flute at the same time. After two years, I went to Juilliard. So, I had a sort of dual personality: music and writing. I never set out to write anything about my illness. My daughters were constantly saying, “Something is wrong with you. We think you need to be tested.” And I would say, “Tested for what?” Finally, I was pretty much dragged to the hospital and diagnosed. Then my daughter and I took the subway back downtown, laughing the whole way, and I went into my apartment, sat down at my desk, stared at the wall, and for whatever reason, I took out a pencil and paper and started writing. It felt like the right way to absorb what had just happened.

I didn’t tell anyone about this, but after about 25 pages, I showed my younger daughter what I was doing. I said, “I don’t know what this is,” and she said, “Mom, this is really wonderful. Just keep doing it.” It was purging, in a sense. It kept me in my family. I was writing about them, trying to remember them. I had a sense of urgency. I never felt frightened about it. I found humor in it, and I just kept going.

How did events turn toward publication?

When I had finished it, I showed it to a few people. Having had four well-received novels to my credit, I went back to those big-name publishers and thought, “Maybe they’ll like it.” They said to me, “It is really lovely, but we don’t know what this is; people aren’t interested in poetry anymore, blah blah blah.” Then my friend the actress and singer Mary Beth Peil read it and asked if she could share it with a writer friend, and this led finally to my publisher, East End Press, who wanted to put it out immediately.

You wrote this book very much real-time, in the midst of the crises it describes. Did you think much about which kinds of episodes would take which literary form – poetry or prose – or was it spontaneous, whatever happened happened?

Whatever happened happened. It was a way of staying in the moment. Having it in my head and putting it on paper gave me a sense of reality.

I know it is still early in the book’s process, but, pre-publication, has it received much attention from the medical community as a contribution to the experiential literature on dementia and Alzheimer’s?

Interestingly, Dr. Herbert Pardes, chairman emeritus of New York-Presbyterian Hospital, was given the book and he loved it. It gave me a big boost.

Dick Novik: If I might add, the Alzheimer’s Association has picked this up in a big way and has been honoring Eugenia for the book. Eugenia will be speaking in front of all the association’s New York staff in a couple of weeks. The book is becoming very important in that community, for obvious reasons. They want people to live every day, to not go into a corner and hide with this disease.

You speak about how the writing of the book kept you tethered to your life in some ways. The book also suggests numerous times that playing and listening to music serves a similar purpose.

Absolutely. Bach is in my dreams all the time. I think he is the God for so many of us. So many other composers, too. Doctors feel very strongly that playing an instrument is incredibly helpful. There are a lot of studies about that going on right now. It helps with memory.

On Sunday, November 10, Eugenia Zukerman will read from Like Falling through a Cloud at Hudson Hall at the Hudson Opera House and participate in a question-and-answer session with the director and CEO of the Northeastern New York Chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association, Elizabeth Smith-Bovin. Zukerman will also be giving a reading at Oblong Books in Rhinebeck on Thursday, November 21 at 8 p.m.  Like Falling through a Cloud went on sale on November 5.

Eugenia Zukerman readings
Sunday, Nov. 10, 3 p.m.
Hudson Hall, Hudson Opera House
327 Warren St., Hudson
https://hudsonhall.org

Thursday, Nov. 21, 8 p.m.
Oblong Books & Music
6422 Montgomery Street, Rhinebeck
www.oblongbooks.com

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