Anyone who has ever cared for a loved one with Alzheimer’s disease knows what a trying experience it can be. Its symptoms vary wildly—the patient may be belligerent, argumentative, suspicious (they constantly think people—even their loved ones—are stealing from them or doing underhanded things behind their back), or have a tendency to leave their homes, insisting on their independence but often getting confused or overwhelmed. It’s not unusual for a Good Samaritan or police officer to find the person wandering and return them to their family. It’s a disease that tends to be harder on the caregiver than the patient, since the caregiver must step in to assist with (or completely assume) a host of responsibilities the patient used to be able to handle themselves—paying bills, cooking, cleaning, grocery shopping, and driving—in addition to tending to their own families. It can be an exhausting, frustrating, and frankly embarrassing role to assume. This is the new reality of the Kraus family in Kathleen H. Wheeler’s debut novel, Brought to Our Senses.
The four Kraus children—eldest brother Tom and sisters Jessica, Teri, and Elizabeth—aren’t portrayed as the closest of siblings. As with most adults, each is living their own life and raising their own families, with their parents and siblings further down the priority list. When they first notice their mother Janice’s memory problems and strange behavior, they aren’t sure what to make of it. Wheeler writes Janice as a bit of a difficult woman when in her right mind, so her children aren’t sure if this is just “Janice being Janice” or something more serious.
The book jumps back and forth in time, starting at the end of Janice’s life and coming full circle to how that end came about. To add extra depth, the chapters are not chronological, but the timeframe of each is written on the first page so the story isn’t hard to follow even though it’s not told linearly. (Sidenote: British musician Sting is a big influence on the novel. The book’s title comes from a Sting song, each chapter is named after a relevant Sting song, and a few lyrics from that song preface each chapter). Wheeler’s choice to tell the story a bit out of order actually provides some context to Janice as a character—how her difficult childhood and strained marriage shaped her as a person and not only contributed to her decline later in life, but amplified her already prickly personality as her disease progressed.
Wheeler focuses on the family history and relationships that have made the Kraus siblings the unit they are as adults. Tom is the treasured eldest son, the one who was encouraged to move as far away from home as possible in the hopes of creating a successful career and rewarding life. The trade-off for that life is that he participates in the latest family crisis from a distance, usually calling in to meetings with attorneys and caregivers rather than attending in person, thus creating more hostility with his sisters; Jessica is the put-upon oldest daughter who dutifully cares for her younger sisters but gets out of the house as soon as she can; Teri is the rebel who challenges her mother, defies her teachers, and bullies her younger sister, and Elizabeth is the coddled baby of the family, her mother’s last chance to right some of the wrongs she may have made with the other children. Because of their birth order and strained relationships to their mother and each other, there is a lot of hostility between the siblings. A crisis like an ill parent can either bring a family closer together or drive them further apart; as Janice’s condition progresses, both happen to the Kraus siblings.
Wheeler paints a realistic picture of the toll Alzheimer’s takes on both the patient and the family. Its primary symptom is memory loss, which is difficult enough for her daughters to cope with. Janice starts showing up at her daughters’ homes several times a day because she can’t recall her other visits. She starts forgetting basic things like paying bills or running errands. But when her daughters address her odd behavior, she becomes defensive and angry, often kicking them out of her house or threatening to cut them out of her will. Janice becomes fixated with visiting her brothers in Nebraska. When her daughters finally comply, it’s a difficult trip for everyone (although Janice least of all), but it proves to her children that there is, indeed, a serious problem.
Later, Wheeler focuses more on the shifting dynamics between the siblings as their mother slowly deteriorates. Janice is admitted to a long-term care facility and although she retains some of her independent spirit at first, gradually the disease gets the best of her and she becomes little more than a shell of her former self (as anyone who’s ever watched the progression of Alzheimer’s can attest). If there is any positive that comes from Janice’s illness, it is that her children are forced to put their differences aside and do what’s best for their mother every step of the way. Youngest daughter Elizabeth also tries to mend relations with her father, Ron, with whom she’d been estranged for several years. There’s nothing quite so disconcerting as having the roles reverse and children must take care of their parents—it’s a humbling and overwhelming experience, and Wheeler does a great job of portraying it accurately. Taking on the role of caregiver (even if you share the burden as the Kraus siblings do) can affect relationships between spouses and children, and it’s a very difficult balance to maintain at times. Wheeler doesn’t shy away from this, either. Of the four siblings, Elizabeth is in the most stable marriage—she and her husband John have been married for several years and are raising a young family. John’s father Harold actually becomes romantically involved with Janice in the early stages of her illness (although she is still fairly lucid, she’s already showing some alarming behaviors), which causes a bit of a strain between Elizabeth and her husband.
In Brought to Our Senses, Wheeler tackles a very sensitive and personal topic with both compassion and pragmatism. Alzheimer’s has been called “the long goodbye”, and while that is unfortunately true, in the case of the Kraus family, the disease brings about some much-needed healing and new beginnings.
About the reviewer: Sara Hodon is a Pennsylvania-based freelance writer whose work has appeared in over two dozen print and online publications.