Gone But Still Here by Jennifer Dance

I flew through this book by Jennifer Dance. It’s very readable with wide audience appeal, about family and real family struggles.

The story is told through alternating narratives. It begins with Mary as she is admitting to herself that she has Alzheimer’s and is trying to write about her past before it’s too late. When her daughter–Kayla–comes to visit she realizes that her mother shouldn’t be living on her own much longer, and soon after, Mary reluctantly goes to live with Kayla. Mary runs the gamut of being sad and angry and confused and anxious, but there are also moments of joy as she remembers the time she spent with her husband Keith long ago.

Mary and Keith met and fell in love in Trinidad. When their three children were very young, he died tragically. Lately, Mary has been spending more of her time thinking about her past, and Kayla is encouraging her mother to write it all down.

I remember our last night in the cottage, sleeping on the floor, on a mattress that was going to be trashed the next morning, Alicia and Zach sandwiched between us. All four of us entwined. I wish I could have stopped time. I loved our life there, and I worried that we’d never be that happy again. But Keith was thinking of the future, of a safer place where our children would have the chance to reach their full potential. He didn’t want them living in fear. He didn’t want them to be held back by skin colour. He was so excited about Canada, so optimistic, that I couldn’t bring myself to tell him I was scared.

It’s not so much a story about a woman with dementia as it is a story about a family and the things they learn from each other. Mary’s condition has an impact on her children and grandchildren. For example, Kayla’s son Jesse, who is still only 14 and living at home, is not pleased at all when Mary comes to live with them – he’s angry and resentful. But watching the hard work and sacrifices made by the adults around him starts to sink in, and we see him grow and become much more likable.

My favourite part of the book is the narrative of the family dog. Sage is an older dog and has been with the family a long time – she’s wise and puppy-like at the same time. I was delighted by the portrayal of the family members through the eyes of Sage; it allows insight into the characters, as well as comic relief. Despite the dementia and Mary’s tragic past, the book never feels too heavy, thanks to Sage’s voice and gentle nature. Characters can be angry and upset, stomping around the house, ignoring Sage… “I try to follow him, but he yells, “Out!” and closes the door, leaving me with nothing to do than pull his dirty shorts from the basket and lick them.” Lines like this makes it hard for the reader to remain mired in the concerns of the humans.

Jess is my upright, my best human. We were pups together. I licked human food from his flat face and chubby fingers.

Words, I reflect, are a human superpower, almost as excellent as hands. As hard as I try to coax words from my mouth, all I can achieve is a limited variety of garbled sounds accompanied by a puddle of drool.

I snuggle up to Jesse, selectively inhaling his reassuring scent, trying to ignore the jumbled odours of Cat, bitter pills, rotting wood, anger, and uncertainty. Maybe tomorrow will smell better.

Mom is still unhappy, even though she pretends to be happy. Gran is still confused, even though she pretends to be okay. And Jesse is still bad-tempered, although he doesn’t pretend to be anything else.

Gone But Still Here is based on the author’s life. “Gone But Still Here is a work of fiction, but it’s also my memoir. The character of Mary… is me in the 1960s and ’70s… a naive yet rebellious teenager who fell helplessly in love across the colour line.” At the age of 33, her husband Keith died from complications from an injury to his head after being attacked by skinheads, leaving Jennifer Dance five months pregnant and with two young children. Dance is also the primary caregiver for her current partner who has Alzheimer’s, and she herself has been diagnosed with Mild Cognitive Impairment.

Despite the tragedy in her life, Dance filled this novel with laughter and love. Read it for Mary and Keith, for Jennifer and Feroze, and, of course, for Sage.

Thank you to Dundurn Press for providing me with a copy of this book!

8 thoughts on “Gone But Still Here by Jennifer Dance

    • Naomi says:

      I was so surprised when I learned it was based on her own life. (I didn’t read about that until the end of the book.) I hope she’s still well.

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