This Beautiful Memoir Explores the Connections Between Nature and Dementia

Susan Cerulean, I Have Been Assigned the SIngle Bird

By Susan Cerulean

In the 1950s and 60s, when I was a child, we knew so little about chronic diseases of the mind, body and spirit, and what we did know, we kept to ourselves. Cancer was the big C, depression had no name at all, and the word alcoholism was never used. So when Alzheimer’s came creeping into my father’s brain, our family had had a lifetime’s training in not naming–and not really knowing–what was going on, not just illness, but also the shame that comes with it, and the helpless, hidden sorrow.

Alzheimer’s, Pick’s, Lewy Body, Parkinson’s: these are not the natural result of aging, but are specific, identifiable diseases of the brain. Most dementing illnesses do their damage gradually. Then, as they progress, the affected person loses intellect, abstract thinking, judgment, and memory, and eventually descends into complete disorder and oblivion.

The Earth is the brain and the body into which we were born. In some nearly parallel way, we face not only a crisis in numbers of people diagnosed with dementia; as a culture, we are stricken with this disease and its attending violence.  For why else would we knowingly destroy the planet that sustains our very lives? Our Western economic and political systems, all the ways we personally consume, and give over our power to corporations and oligarchs—those are the illnesses that are killing our planet. When you have the physical disease, you experience it alone.  But our cultural dementia–we are in this together.

Susan Cerulean, I Have Been Assigned the SIngle BirdAs I came to these understandings, as a nature writer, I felt that I might serve both our understandings of both types of dementia by braiding them into this one memoir.

During the five years we cared for my father in an assisted care facility near our home, I spent many, many hours staring out the big windows of his room. I began to notice that many of the tall pines around the nursing home were dying under the weight of the vines swarming their living canopies. I saw that those smothering lianas were exactly like the tangles and plaques in my father’s brain, how both kudzu and Alzheimer’s replace a vibrant living place with loss. Dad’s drugs, the Namenda and the Aricept, were like winter frost in the forest. For a time, they would keep the plaques in his brain at bay. I could still make out the biggest magnolia, setting its red fall fruit, but I didn’t know if it would survive until freezing December nights slashed the tough kudzu back to its knees.

In I Have Been Assigned the Single Bird, I offer you the story of my own explorations, in service to this question: How can we care for this world? I have tried to reconcile my roles as one daughter caring for one father, as one woman attuned at times, to only a single wild bird, while the planet is burning. Offering care to those we love is closely similar to standing up for our Earth, I have found. In each case, we are required to be fierce and full-bodied advocates, in an endless series of small actions, each as important as the next.

Purchase I Have Been Assigned the Single Bird: A Daughter’s Memoir, University of Georgia Press, 2020

About the Author

Susan CeruleanWriter, naturalist, and advocate Susan Cerulean divides her time between Indian Pass and Tallahassee, Florida.  Her latest book, I Have Been Assigned the Single Bird: A Daughter’s Memoir was  released by the University of Georgia Press. In 2015, her book Coming to Pass: Florida’s Coastal Islands in a Gulf of Change won a gold medal Florida Book Award.  Her nature memoir Tracking Desire: A Journey after Swallow-tailed Kites (Georgia) was named an Editors’ Choice title by Audubon magazine. She has written and edited many other books and is a volunteer and past President of the Friends of St. Vincent National Wildlife Refuge.

Connect with Susan Cerulean





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