Once the uninvited guest of illness trespasses and enters a household, a family is reshaped to form the essential circle of care around the one who is sick. But it is not until the attentive members are forced to loosen their hold that they will discover themselves newly defined through their loss. When Sarah Leavitt's mother, Midge, first began to show the early symptoms of her illness in 1996 - leaving a hot iron unattended on the board, sitting in the car alone for too long after everyone else has got out, going for a walk and sometimes forgetting her return way home, suddenly unable to open a door or answer the ringing phone - she was only 52.
Two years later, Midge Leavitt was diagnosed with Alzheimer's. At the time, Sarah had already been living in Vancouver for a while, with her parents and older sister, Hannah, in Fredericton. During the course of numerous visits home, Sarah began to keep a journal and draw in sketchbooks, until her mother died in 2004. Tangles, which is short-listed for the Writers' Trust Non-Fiction Award, is her graphic memoir, which in an engaging and straightforward manner reanimates the singular spirit of her mother through words and pictures.
In the introduction, Leavitt says that, as her mother changed, she did as well, "forced to reconsider my own identity as a daughter and as an adult and to recreate my relationship with my mother." Tangles comprises brief chapters that move back and forth in time. And it is guided by the open-hearted pen of the author, who manages to balance the stories of her mother as a principled individual and a dedicated educator in her professional life alongside detailing the engulfing humiliations of Alzheimer's, such as when her mother is no longer able to dress or feed herself, and, when incontinent, needs to be bathed.
The fabric of the Leavitt family is beautifully woven. As a child, Sarah begins to have nightmares that continue right through her high-school years, and her mother, likened to Miss Clavel in Madeline, is an ever-present source of comfort. So, years later, when Sarah calls her mother to say she thinks she might be a lesbian, it does not come as a surprise to hear Midge offer her wise belief that "someone who had to go through a 'coming-out' process would end up being a pretty together person." These panels are presented and simply drawn with a light touch of humour when Sarah adds, "The whole coming-out thing was pretty anticlimactic."
And later, in a scene with Sarah sitting beside her mother in the garden she can no longer attend to, Midge's admission to feeling that she has lost all her own sweetness underscores poignantly what is at this memoir's core - the observed and treasured remembrances of a gentle, vibrant individual. As a daughter, Sarah is able to return to her mother the gift of unwavering care and love, while at the same time fulfilling the demands of a memoir by depicting candidly the times of frustration and fear and depression, not only about herself, but also in portraying her father, Rob, both as a devoted husband and as a constant caregiver who is also "desperate for freedom."
Toward the end of her illness, Midge could no longer walk, and is moved to a nursing home. Rob visits nearly every day and reads poetry to her. For a brief period, ee cummings and Robert Frost take up the space between husband and wife that had once been filled with the effortless intimacy of daily conversation. At first, he is greeted with a smile, but all too soon even the gesture of recognition is erased.
Midge Leavitt died at 60. She did not believe in God, and Sarah expresses her own ambivalence about His existence. Yet, after her mother was buried, and in accordance with Jewish tradition, she said Kaddish, the mourner's prayer, dutifully for a year: "I didn't care what the words were. I wanted the ritual. … I wanted to remember Mom every day like that."
Samuel Johnson once wrote that "the true art of memory is the art of attention," and those words have been well served by Tangles. Under the watchful gaze of Sarah Leavitt and through the making of a graphic memoir - another form of ritual - the life of her mother is now bound and contained.
Bernice Eisenstein is the author of I Was a Child of Holocaust Survivors, and is presently engaged in putting words and drawings together for her next book.