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Book Review: An Uncertain Inheritance – Writers on Caring For Family, edited by Nell Casey

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By the time I was halfway through An Uncertain Inheritance I found myself sitting in the dark in the garden with tears rolling down my cheeks. I walked back into the light of the kitchen and placed the book on the table. “I can’t review this book,” I announced unsteadily to my husband, “it’s too sad”.

The book establishes the facts right at the beginning, and of all the revelations between its pages they are perhaps the most unpalatable. They walk silently among us; the carers. Thirty million in America alone. An incredible 80% of all home care for the elderly is provided by family. In some cases, middle-aged carers are caring for both their young family and their aged relations, caught between the proverbial rock and hard place in a relentless drizzle of conflicting emotions.

Each chapter has a new and wonderfully articulate voice. Editor Nell Casey has brought together some of America’s most accomplished writers, inviting them to tell their own difficult tales. Sam Lipsyte describes his imperfect and gently humorous response in the face of his mother’s cancer. Ann Harleman interlaces the experience of living with her husband’s MS with tender reminiscences of their earlier intimacies. Jerome Groopman, a doctor, illustrates the difficulty of maintaining boundaries when somebody you love is sick and all your learning cannot spare them the trials they must endure. The voices multiply as the book continues. And each voice illustrates a new facet of the caring conundrum. The generous gift of each contributor makes for difficult reading; it is both harrowing and uplifting to be invited into their private world.

The accounts cover the range of conditions from mental health conditions, cancer, multiple sclerosis and Alzheimer’s, some in the voice of the carer, some in the voice of the cared for. Although most stories end with death, some do not. Although most stories speak of hope and love, some expose the imperfect nature of our humanity or leave us embroiled in the anguish of a chronically painful situation; indeed, it was Eleanor Cooney’s desperate dilemma which made me stop reading the first time.

In this beautifully written book we read the courageous narratives of these flawed angels. And as you read them, remember those statistics. For every Sam Lipsyte, there are millions around the world, coping against the odds, contemplating their own battle against the specter of cancer in the family. In An Uncertain Inheritance the unspoken millions are given a voice. This compelling and readable book should be required reading for anybody who is touched by this subject; by my calculations that means almost everybody.

And this book touched me because I understood. I am not a carer. I am cared for. I realize the burden my illness places on my family. We too, have muddled by in a maelstrom of contrary feelings and relentless imperatives, frequently angry at ourselves and with each other, at times bound to each other by love, humor and a shared triumph over adversity. This book made me feel we were not alone. A part of me wishes that were not the case.

Too sad indeed, but required reading.

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About Corylus Contorta

  • This article has been selected for syndication to Advance.net , which is affiliated with newspapers around the United States, and to Boston.com. Nice work!

  • Corylus:

    I was so happy to see your very sensitive review of “An Uncertain Inheritance.” A former caregiver myself, I adored this book. (When my husband Tim died in 2005 at the age of 56, he was a 15 year brain tumor survivor.) I love the fact that these stories are so beautifully written AND that they all ring so true. Although they share certain commonalities, each person’s caregiving experience is essentially different from the others.

    I have a review of this wonderful book on my website, too, and I’d love for you to read it.

    Again, thanks for your beautiful review of this wonderful book!

    Julia Schopick