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  • Written by Elizabeth Cohen
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  • Written by Elizabeth Cohen
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A Memoir of Love and Courage

Written by Elizabeth CohenAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Elizabeth Cohen


List Price: $9.99


On Sale: December 18, 2007
Pages: 304 | ISBN: 978-0-307-43219-3
Published by : Random House Random House Group
The Family on Beartown Road Cover

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A New York Times Notable Book

The Family on Beartown Road
is Elizabeth Cohen’s true and moving portrait of love and courage.

Elizabeth, a member of the “sandwich generation”—those caught in the middle, simultaneously caring for their children and for their aging parents—is the mother of baby Ava and the daughter of Daddy, and responsible for both. In this story full of everyday triumphs, first steps, and an elder’s confusion, Ava finds each new picture, each new word, each new song, something to learn greedily, joyfully. Daddy is a man in his twilight years, for whom time moves slowly and lessons are not learned but quietly, frustratingly forgotten. Elizabeth, a suddenly single mother with a career and a mortgage and a hamperful of laundry, finds her world spiraling out of control. Faced with mounting disasters, she chooses to confront life head-on, and to see the unique beauty in each and every moment.

Imbued with an unquenchable spirit, The Family on Beartown Road takes us on a journey through the remarkable landscape that is family.


chapter 1

Dream Detection

Sometimes at night I lie awake for hours beside my baby daughter, Ava, cupping her head in my hand. Maybe I am imagining, but sometimes I swear I can feel it: I can feel her dreaming. The sensation upon my fingers is less than a vibration but more than stillness. A something-in-between-nothing-and-something, vague but true. I imagine I can feel my daughter’s mind becoming.

Touching her head in this way comes naturally to me, an instinctual rather than a conscious act. I do it because I am afraid of our circumstances as winter approaches. And because I understand now how delicate a mind is, the many ways in which it can fail a person.

When I was a child, whenever I felt upset, overwhelmed, unsure of my actions or that my thoughts were racing too fast to catch them, I developed the habit of placing my hand on my forehead. It has a calming effect, as though in doing so I can actually slow my mind down, fully possess it, or redirect its course. Just as I touch my daughter’s head, at times when I wake from a particularly vivid dream, I have found myself cupping my own forehead. My hand on my head seems to help me better recall my dreams, as if it is an umbilicus from the sleeping world to waking, a bridge.

Just when I feel my daughter’s dreams begin to swirl inside my palms, she often twitches or smiles or mumbles things that are not quite words but that, judging from her expressions, are sometimes serious, sometimes amusing. That is my favorite thing—when she laughs in her sleep. Never at any time—not when I first held her, wet and new, not when I comforted her when she was teething, not even when I fed her by breast—have I felt as close to my daughter as I do when I touch her dreams.

Down the hall from where we sleep lies my father. I know when he dreams, too, because in his sleep he shouts and whimpers, declares and rages. He begs for my mother. He pleads. He shakes the bed. His dreaming is very busy.

Yet listening to him I have this thought—that if I were to place a hand upon his forehead I would not feel a thing. There would be no subtle almost-vibration, no activity within that brain that once graded reams of undergraduate term papers, lectured about abuses of migratory laborers, charted trends in factory employment and union membership. That mind that once won him a fellowship to Harvard to study industrial relations would be startlingly silent. I fear that touching the forehead of my father, a professor emeritus of economics, I would feel nothing. Rather than signs of a mind’s activity, his dreams seem like echoes of a past intelligence. His voice in the night is a habit, a reflex. He calls out because he can. That is all.

The baby dreaming beside me is acquiring all the cognitive processes that will guide her in life. My father has Alzheimer’s disease; time, place, people, and events all blur and dissemble for him. It has stolen almost all of his connections to life.

Just as I have considered the mechanics of dreaming, I have begun to think about thinking. Thinking about thought is a peculiar experience. When it is someone else’s thought it is mostly conjecture, because no person is privy to that most private space of another. When it is my own thought it is confusing and sometimes scary. I can detect both the strengths and the flaws in my mind, its laziness and gaps and the great trough of forgetting that opens between certain events. And it occurs to me, when I sense this canyon of lost memories snaking through my life, that I hate forgetting. I hate it more than anything—sorrow, indifference, hunger, cold. It takes and takes, a robber who absconds with ideas, names, dates, prized moments, song lyrics, stanzas of poetry, recipes, the punch lines of jokes. It steals what a person truly owns; it takes the life he has lived, leaving him stranded on the island of the present.

Forgetting is my only real enemy. And it is taking my father in fits and starts, in chunks and in slices, stretching out the pain of loss unbearably.

But forgetting lives in our house now like another person. It is always hungry. I go into my husband Shane’s painting studio, where the canvases sing with color and seem so immune to erasure, and I wonder—when will it encroach here? Someday will he forget the way cadmium meshes with black, the lovely moment of approaching a freshly gessoed canvas, the way he spits on his fingers and rubs the chalky color from pastels into a muted shadow on a face?

I watch myself forgetting to pick up toothpaste when I am shopping, forgetting to give my father his medication, forgetting the date, forgetting the capital of Tennessee. It is insidious.

My daughter does not yet know enough to forget. Each thing in her mind is a bright new resident, firmly affixed and special. She remembers where the cookies are, gets excited when I approach the jar. She points at a carton of chocolate milk on the left side of the refrigerator behind the juice. She is just beginning to approach speech; still, she communicates remembering very well. While we are surprised that she can remember so much, she is nonchalant. She has been alive under a year, yet she acts like she has always known these things. For Ava, remembering comes naturally, like a sneeze, a hiccup.

She is learning so fast now that I cannot keep up with all she knows. She is learning her body. Not with words, but locations. Say “nose,” and sometimes, I swear, she points at her nose. Say “tongue” and out hers pops. Did I teach her the location of her tongue? When did I do that? I rack my brain for a recollection of an instance of tongue instruction, but none comes to me. If I did, I have forgotten it. But she hasn’t.

One recent night as I lay beside her, watching her laugh at some secret amusement as she slept, my father walked into the room. He saw me there, touching her head while her subconscious laughter pealed forth. I waited for him to comment, to say something about her laughter, about my hand on her laughter, about her beauty, there on the pillow, a mass of dark curls spread out around her face. Instead he seemed embarrassed, as though he had walked in on a private moment. As though her joyful sleep were something intimate he should not have seen.

“Look,” I said, inviting him into her beauty. “She laughs in her sleep.”

He walked over and glanced down, looking at Ava laughing and sleeping.

“You know,” he said, considering her, “I was thinking about that same thing recently. That funny thing. But now it’s gone.”

From the Hardcover edition.
Elizabeth Cohen|Author Q&A

About Elizabeth Cohen

Elizabeth Cohen - The Family on Beartown Road

Photo © Mark Hill/CNN

Elizabeth Cohen is Senior Medical Correspondent for CNN and author of the popular “Empowered Patient” column on cnn.com. She received her master’s in Public Health from Boston University and her bachelor’s degree from Columbia University in New York City. She lives in Atlanta, Georgia, with her husband, Tal Cohen, and four daughters.

Author Q&A

An Interview:
Anna Quindlen and Elizabeth Cohen Discuss The Family on Beartown Road

Anna Quindlen, bestselling author of Blessings and A Short Guide to a Happy Life, recently sat down with Elizabeth Cohen to discuss what it was like to write The Family on Beartown Road.

Anna Quindlen: This book deals in part with your experience as part of the “sandwich generation,” a generation of people simultaneously caring for their aging parents and their own young children. Could you speak to that issue a bit?
Elizabeth Cohen: When my father moved in with me I joined the growing ranks of the "sandwich generation.” Daily, we tend to the needs of people at the opposite ends of life, needs which sometimes mimic each other but also can clash. I have my own name for it, I call it "extreme parenting." In most cases the people in the middle of the sandwich generation have children that are school age or even about to go to college. Rarer are those who, like myself, find themselves in the position of caring for an elderly, infirm parent or one with Alzheimer's disease at the same time they have an infant. That can mean feeding and diapering two very different sorts of people.

But there is a silver lining. When your parent and your child find a place they can communicate with on another, when you see that they have begun to give one another some solace, it can be quite beautiful.

AQ: How is writing a memoir different from writing columns?

EC: Column writing is snapshot writing. You do not have the time or space to expound on anything, so you settle for a picture. You set a scene and communicate one or two ideas. You tell a story in brief. In a memoir you have the space to spread your thoughts out. To decorate them. To let them breathe and evolve and build.

AQ: Was it harder to write a memoir?
EC: It was different. Column writing can be very stressful because of the pressure of daily deadlines. Memoir writing is scary in a different way, because you become aware that your readership is so much larger and broader.

AQ: Do you feel like writing this memoir changed you?
EC: The experience changed me. Being with my dad and daughter alone, responsible for them both, trying to meet their needs, made me grow up. I feel changed entirely. The parts of me that skirted responsibility, that took easy ways out, that opted for an extra ten minutes in bed in the morning were voided. In their place came a person who grew the capacity to put myself on a shelf. I became much more patient.
Writing the memoir became a release valve for all the pressures that built up.

: This is a courageous work, you were all alone, you handled taking care of your father and your daughter Ava and you wrote a book.
EC: I felt very alone, I was scared of my situation and writing about it seemed to help.

AQ: Usually when I've written quite personally about a family or a friend I can show them the material, or at least tell them what I'm doing so they can approve. But with your father, who had Alzheimer's, and your daughter, who was only a toddler, you couldn’t do that.
EC: The ethical questions loom large for me. Is it right to write about people whom you cannot ask for permission? I don’t know.

AQ: Do you have a shortstop in your writing? In other words, are there privacy boundaries you won’t cross in telling the story of your life? I know in my own life, writing about my kids and family, I reached a point where it no longer felt appropriate to keep writing about their lives. I had to stop.
EC: I have no shortstop. And I have thought a lot about this. I did not stop myself from writing down absolutely anything and everything that happened to me during the time this book was written. Possibly that is because I didn’t know I was writing a book at the time I began and then that tell-all style became my template for the later parts of the book when I did know I was writing a book.

AQ: You have done a wonderful turn for your father, commemorating his life in this lovely book.
EC: I have thought about that a lot, too. This book depicts him at his weakest moment of life. He was and is truly a great man, he cared about people, he lived his life following strong ethical principles, he fought to help unionize the hospitals in Albuquerque, New Mexico, he fairly arbitrated for labor unions all over the country, he struggled to helped find solutions for desperate economies in the third world. It seems to be sad, too, that he may be remembered now for this disease that snatched him at the end of a remarkable and stellar life.

AQ: I am not sure that is how he’ll be remembered. I think all that he was comes through. We get a feeling for him throughout his life, not just who he became. Especially in the part where you quote from his book at the end and talk about his work in economics. It is just sad he doesn’t know about it.
EC: Well, he was always very proud of me for my writing, and although I can never know for sure, and I could not really ask him, although I tried, I believe he would have supported this project, even though it would reveal so much of the intensely private realm of his life.

AQ: One part of the book I love is when, as your father’s mind wanders, he invents phrases, wonderful phrases to express himself. Some of those were like poetry.
EC: Word salad. That is what it is officially called. When my father could not remember the correct words for things he would grope for a substitute and that is when he came up with these beautiful words and phrases. He called apples the magnificent crackly ones, he called Ava the beautiful little one and me the beautiful big one.

AQ: That is the one I was thinking of, that is so wonderful is about Ava, about her coming into a room.
EC: He said she was the one who fills the room with hurricanes, he meant, I think, that she makes a huge mess wherever she goes.

AQ: Another part that was very touching was about your neighbors. You had not even known them and they became such an important part of your existence, and how they came to help you out and delivered food, was very touching.
EC: When winter really came on I realized how fearfully unprepared for it I was. That was when my neighbors stepped in. Fortunately they dug us out numerous times. They became friends, almost like family.

AQ: In the midst of all that was going on in your life, where and how did you find the time to write a book?
EC: I wrote at night. My father would wake me up when he would wander around the house, or Ava would wake me up when she woke up, as babies often do, and I would find myself sleepless. So I’d go to the computer. And that is when the bulk of this material came spilling out of me.

AQ: Did it help you to write it down, was it a relief?
EC: It was therapy. My computer was my therapist. I really believe I was able to cope with intensely difficult circumstance because of two factors — the levity and joy that Ava brought to my life and being able to write it all down.

AQ: Taking care of a person with Alzheimer’s disease is renowned for its difficulty. One thing you seem to have learned is how to humor the person with the disease to protect them.
EC: Yes, rather than correcting or trying to reorient my father all the time when he become confused, which could be very upsetting to him, I learned how to play along and humor him. If he asked me when we were going to Ohio, for example, I would just say in a week or so, even though we were not going to Ohio.

AQ: What did you learn from this time of your life, would you do anything different now?
EC: I learned that you must be prepared in life. I always keep a stack of dry wood on my porch now. I have a hurricane lamp ready to go with oil. I keep flashlights. If I could go back in time I would get better vehicles, a snowblower, a better shovel, I would take more time with my father than I did then to savor his memories, his personhood, because time is harsh. Now he is almost completely gone. He no longer talks. He no longers sees me. I miss him even in the fractured state that he was in during the time of this book. I miss him so terribly. And there is no going back.

AQ: In a sense writing is all about memory and your book is about memory being lost. Do you think that writing a book like yours staves off the loss of memories in some sense?
EC: There is no staving off the end of life, no staving off the end of memory, it runs its own course in each individual life. What you can do is save things for future generations. My sister recently said to me that she thought of this book as a gift for the children of our children and their children, etc. “What do we know about our great grandmothers?” she asked me. We know nothing at all. Now a slice of time has been preserved for those future generations, if they are interested. And in a way it is good that it was a difficult time. It is really what a part of our lives were like.

AQ: in the book you worry a lot about losing your own memory. Do you still worry about that?
EC: Less now that my father lives separate from me. I still catch myself panicking sometimes when I lose the car keys or can’t remember a name. But there is a calm I find now too, when I need it.

Eventually we all lose our memories. Eventually we all become memories. All we have for sure is this moment now, and whatever we can summon in our hearts and minds about moments past. There is no guarantee that you can hold onto those. I see the world now in terms of memorable and nonmemorable things. Things that stay and things that blow last you without leaving anything behind. These are thoughts I never even had before I lived with my father on Beartown Road. These sorts of things never occurred to me.




“Frank, funny...courageous.”
The New York Times Book Review

“The adventure and peril of everyday living captured in language that’s light, beautiful, and razor-sharp.”
Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

“The book is poignant and sad, funny and real, and highlights what is universally nutty about living with other people.”
—Melissa Fay Greene, author of The Temple Bombing and Praying for Sheetrock

“[A] touching memoir...What makes the book so sympathetic is Cohen’s lack of self-pity and the straightforward tone....[A] superb chronicle.”

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