Eugenia Zukerman worked hard and juggled it all — performing, writing, interviewing artists, directing concert series — with ease and grace, until a few years ago. In her early 70s, she became forgetful, misplacing papers, losing her words. Concerned, her daughters insisted she get tested. Eugenia, whose mother was sharp at 103, wasn’t worried. Until her sister, a doctor herself, reminded her: six of their mother’s siblings suffered cognitive decline and died in their 70s. The results of Eugenia’s neuro-psych exam and MRI confirmed: her cognitive impairment was real, and would only get worse. She had Alzheimer’s.
Outraged and terrified, Zukerman vowed to do her best to handle her diagnosis “privately and purposefully.” She began to chronicle her unraveling, mostly in verse. The result is the gorgeous new book, Like Falling Through a Cloud: A Lyrical Memoir of Coping with Forgetfulness, Confusion, and a Dreaded Diagnosis [East End Press; November 2019], an intimate, courageous, heartbreaking, lyrical, and uplifting memoir of Eugenia’s year of finding her way through the maze of confusion and brambles of loss.
LIKE FALLING THROUGH A CLOUD
when I wake up
where am I?
sometimes I know
I have no idea
so I let the night spirits wrap around me
and they whisper to me
You will remember…
I lie very still
like falling through a cloud
Receiving an Alzheimer’s Diagnosis
What was your feeling when you realized your memory was failing?
I was in denial. My daughters told me they were worried about my forgetfulness, my loss of words, my confusion. They suggested — or rather, insisted — I get tested. A flutist, writer, artistic director, busy playing, writing, and performing, I refused. I was angry at first, but soon realized they were right, and I went with my youngest daughter, Natalia, to be tested.
When did you decide to write the book? When you were diagnosed?
I took a subway home with Natalia and we joked and laughed together as we always do, but when I went into my apartment I went into my room, sat at my desk, and stared at the wall for a long time. I did not cry. I did not move. But then, for some reason, I took out a pen and paper and started to write. I did seek help, but what seems to have saved me from crumbling and falling apart was music, love, poetry and, oddly, laughter.
“I just felt the need to chronicle my own demise”
What was your process in doing the writing? Daily? Certain times?
As a flutist, I always start my day by practicing my flute. As for writing, I didn’t tell anyone that I was writing something. I just felt the need to chronicle my own demise. What poured out of me was mostly in verse, helping me to find my own way through the brambles and pitfalls of loss. After I’d written about 25 pages, I told Natalia that I seemed to be writing something, and asked her if she’d read what I’d written and tell me what she thought. “Mom,” she said, “It’s wonderful. Just keep going. I love it!”
What help did you require vs what another author would have needed?
I can’t answer that. I only know that I felt a natural flow, an easy feel to the writing. It gave me great pleasure and, having always enjoyed writing poetry, I simply kept going.
There is one line, “I am not a dope.” What do you mean by that?
I think I was just trying to encourage myself to stay strong. To tell myself that I should try hard, to keep on keeping on.
“Music continues to give me strength and joy”
Do you have a daily rhythm or set of practices you do?
Living in the country, I roll out of bed early, I do my floor exercises, have coffee and, as a flutist, I do start my day playing scales, exercises, etc. I take a daily walk or hike every day. I play with the dogs and horses. I’m crazy in love with my husband who is recently retired after a distinguished career in broadcasting and we now have more quality time together.
Do you have any thoughts about a legacy you want to leave behind?
I feel lucky that music continues to give me strength and joy, and inspires me in every way. I love this quote from Plato: “Music is a moral law, it gives wings to the mind, a soul to the universe, a flight to imagination, a charm to sadness, and life to everything.”
“Live your life with as much energy and joy as possible”
What are some of the most memorable moments that you hold on to?
As someone who has Alzheimer’s disease, I want others to know that, given a frightening diagnosis, it’s important to live every day with hope, to know that there is still time to be productive, to enjoy every day, to keep a positive outlook, to be kind and caring and to live your life with as much energy and joy as possible.