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Severe mercy: a caregiver’s account of Alzheimer’s

An Interview with Carol J. Rottman

Carol Rottman’s newest book, A Memoir of Parting (Principia Media, 2016), chronicles her husband Fritz’s three-year journey through dementia and death from cancer. Vignette after vignette brought tears to my eyes. Our family had visited Carol and Fritz’s  “Michigan Prairie” on Flatiron Lake some five years ago. Recently, I had the chance to visit briefly with Rottman at Calvin’s Festival of Faith and Writing. Following are some of the questions that she took the time to answer during our meeting.

James C. Dekker: When did you realize you were writing a book?
Carol J. Rottman:
I have kept a journal since 1981 when our son was in a paralyzing accident. Journals are for dumping the hard stuff, but memoir is for bringing disparate realities together to make some sense of them. During the three years I was writing this book, so many “givens” of our lives together had been turned upside down. Each time I had an hour, I’d race to the keyboard. I had no intention of writing a book, but the essays, named and dated, accumulated.

After I realized that our relationship was changing because of what Fritz called his “memory issues,” my writing shifted to a memoir of “now.” I wrote to find out what I was thinking, trying to make sense of the most confusing situation either of us had ever faced. Writing has been my means of survival. 

Then two things happened: the editor of my first two books, Dirk Wierenga, who checked with me periodically, suggested when Fritz died that our experiences should become a book. As well, my pastor alerted me to a group from Western Seminary (RCA) called “Writing as an Act of Faith.” I applied to join this yearlong commitment. At one monthly meeting, I presented my project, with a few of the essays, and asked for advice. At the time I thought I’d have to rewrite to create coherence in the story. One wise member saw the value of the direct experience and suggested the story would unfold within the dated stories. With very little tweaking, the original manuscripts became the book. It would have been a totally different book if I’d written it looking back.

The descriptions of your arguments with Fritz were striking for their candor, but also for their tenderness. Did you disagree differently after becoming Fritz’s caregiver?  
You have noted one of the deepest changes in our relationship as it became unequal.  When I talk about “sparring partners,” that most describes our pre-dementia negotiations (fighting!): Reasonable, forceful but not cruel; often leading to better understanding. Even when disagreeing, we honoured each other’s ideas. Fritz’s ability to empathize waned with his mental powers. He repeated his hurts many times, undaunted by my responses. His anger mellowed quickly after each incident; the sting lingered for me.

The descriptions of your children’s and grandchildren’s responses to Fritz’s several illnesses are moving, from this grandfather’s perspective. Yet, with the exception of granddaughter Dani’s persistent, demanding deathbed vigil with Fritz, you don’t detail others’ deeply personal interactions. How did they relate to Fritz as he was slipping away?
Our family has an unusual bond, perhaps because of 1981’s life-changing event. Our children and grandchildren enjoyed times with Fritz as variations of earlier times – the holiday gatherings and vacations. In the same way that our children and I noticed changes in his mental clarity, the eight grandchildren, ranging in age from 13 to 26, knew and accommodated the changes. They listened to the old stories and laughed with him. He did not have long to live; it wasn’t necessary to talk about death. The family didn’t hover over either of us, but stayed close.
The chapter called “The Stash” describes shooting off fireworks in our version of an “Irish Wake.”  That pretty much shows the way we celebrated Fritz’s life.

You kept Fritz’s mental deterioration virtually invisible from the outside. Now I’m astonished to think that when our family visited your prairie home, he was already suffering from Alzheimer’s. We noticed no mental slippage during our hour-long tour. Fritz named plants, described the process of reclaiming farmland, preparing the soil, the controlled burns. Why did you put such effort into hosting people who invited themselves over?
Many acquaintances tell me they were unaware of his Alzheimer’s. He remained friendly and affable. I told others sparingly because I wanted Fritz to enjoy normal interaction as long as possible. Labels often hide the person behind them. Alzheimer’s takes many different forms and paths. Many of our stereotypes are faulty.

We loved the prairie we restored and were always pleased to have people come by. Most visitors didn’t notice how often I slipped in a word to make Fritz’s story complete. There was joy in sharing our love of nature and a meal with his garden harvest.

Near the end, you write openly of Fritz’s wishes to take the next step into eternity, about his mental and physical anguish. Considering recent Canadian and several states’ legislation on Physician Assisted Dying, and based on your own convictions, can you help readers discern our way through this crucial ethical debate?
Fritz was mainly thinking to save me from the pain of his slow dying and jumbled mind. Memoir is a way to witness experiences in life; it cannot be a position paper. So I take exception to Diane Rehm’s new book, On My Own, in which she advocates for assisted dying, after her husband’s death.

Personally I have sympathy for this cause in certain situations. I understand, from the movement’s history, that making it possible doesn’t make it probable, but gives a measure of control in today’s “lifesaving at all costs” atmosphere. Palliative care and hospice offer gentle care for the dying.

A larger question for Christians might be, “Why do we fear death so much?”  Has modern medicine led us to believe that death is “unnatural”? Even those of us who profess our only comfort in life and in death rests in Christ rarely refuse futile treatment in hopes of a little more breathing. Fighting terminal illness is seen as bravery. Rob Moll’s book, The Art of Dying, has encouraged me. I am grateful to God for my experience with death; it’s changing how I live – and hopefully how I die.

Without betraying confidences, would you share responses from people who have absorbed your book?
I have been overwhelmed by the goodness of people who have taken time to connect with me. One woman expressed surprise that I would reveal such intimate details. Most others thought those details brought them into my experience. Another common response – “could not put it down.” One reader, Bill, wrote, “I appreciate your in-depth descriptions of the impact of Alzheimer’s disease on a brilliant mind, your honesty about your feelings and frustrations, and your deep faith.” And from another reader, Mary: “Thank you. Your honesty and your pain without any self-pity are palpable. And your faith and at times questioning where this was all leading, are also encouraging. Our walk with God is not always a peaceful or triumphant stroll. Truly God’s mercy is sometimes severe, as C.S. Lewis said.”

Thank you so much, Carol, for your willingness to offer Hope within grief. Your tender candor and your readers’ responses deepen the blessings you have given as we face our own mortality. 


Carol Rottman is a retired teacher and author. She lives on the prairie in the warmer months, but in Grand Rapids, Michigan, most of the time during winter, going out to Flatiron Lake for shorter stints.

  • Jim is a semi-retired Christian Reformed pastor and missionary who now works for Resonate Global Mission ten hours a week as "Member Care Coordinator," which means "Pastor to Missionaries," because where lots of our missionaries work it's inadvisable to use pastor or missionary publicly. That cool job puts a framework to his week, keeps him in contact with hundreds of even cooler servants of Jesus all over the world, compels him to travel to visit them once in a while, though he connects with them via email and Zoom most of the time. The rest of the time Jim reads books--lots of free ones that he "pays for" with reviews. He was acclaimed President of Christian Courier Board of Directors while on his way to that meeting from a long ophthalmologist appointment. As long as God gives his wife Rose and him health, they ride a tandem bike around Niagara and other places in the bikeable months, paddle canoes and kayaks, visit children and grandchildren in the distant places they live because their parents provided them poor role models for stability of residence.

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