Delusion, Dementia, or Discourse?

I'll Close My Eyes (But I Won't Be Asleep), By Elisa Adler

I’ll Close My Eyes (But I Won’t Be Asleep), By Elisa Adler


Delusion, dementia or discourse? Elisa Adler insists on the latter, and with the threads of her mother’s narratives weaves for them a raft of words in her stunningly beautiful, thought provoking, and profound memoir, I’ll Close My Eyes (But I Won’t Be Asleep). The book sounds an intimate, heartbreaking, and sometimes humorous, end-of-life chord in a mother and daughter relationship. A compelling memoir, I’ll Close My Eyes (But I Won’t Be Asleep) is an honest account of what, for most of us, remains hidden and unheard. It will be useful for anyone torn by conflicting desires and demands, battered by memory, grief and rage, and struggling to give care. Elisa Adler studied at the University of California, Berkeley; Mills College; and Centro de Estudios Colombo-Americanos in Bogotá, Colombia. She’s been a newspaper reporter, translator, and interpreter, and has taught English at community colleges in California and Nevada for more than thirty years. She lives and farms with her daughter and husband in California. Join us now as she discusses her powerful memoir.

Silverberry: Losing a loved one is so painful and difficult. What drew you to write about the experience of losing your mother?


Adler: Probably, like most people who write, only because I had to. At that time, I didn’t know anyone who’d been with her mother at the end of life. Taking care of my mother, facing death with her, was a traumatic and very lonely experience, something I very much needed to talk about but couldn’t, for all sorts of reasons. I wrote for my sisters, hoping to be able to tell them in writing what we hadn’t been able to share in time. I wrote for my mother and for myself, I think, as kind of post-partum acknowledgment and love-letter. And I wrote to try to document what I knew I’d forget, indeed what I’ve already forgotten — something having to do with what some people call god, what had been taboo in my family, something I had no language, emotional or intellectual place for. What drew me to write about the experience was my need to manage the trauma and break the constraints of silence, to find the words, affirm the mother, and affirm the value of the care-giving experience in a world that places expediency above attention and care. For a time, I was conscious of and witness to a sacred space. That consciousness, I suppose, was what drew me to write of the experience. Hoping to remember it and be able to share.


Silverberry: Tell us about the book’s title, I’ll Close My Eyes (But I Won’t Be Asleep) and what it signifies.


Adler: Those were her words.


The mystery for me in those days was the sense that my mother was speaking to me differently and in very important ways. I never felt she was demented. That may have been my own defensiveness, but I don’t think so. I know for sure she had none of the symptoms of Alzheimer’s. It was an end of life, verbally new, and honest engagement with life and how she found herself in it. I listened. She was telling me what was happening, and I took her very seriously knowing, paradoxically, that it was my job to follow her and to be her guide — both at the same time — to translate her to herself, perhaps. I was a kind of seeing-eye dog, though something else was leading that she and I both were part of. Something like the current fish are in.


Silverberry: Although my mom was an actor, she was intensely private. I wonder if you struggled with how much to reveal about yourself, your family, and your mom, and if so, how you ultimately reconciled that.


Adler: In retrospect, maybe I should have. What I did do, at the end of writing, was delete anything I thought could be hurtful. But mostly, once it was on the page I no longer thought it was about me, my family, us. It was about something I was witness too. That’s all. If I’d been wiser I would have changed all the names, made the declaimer to fiction. It is fiction, after all.


Silverberry: Speaking of fiction, while it was a memoir, your book read like a novel. It was quite gripping. Is there a brief section that you can share? 


Adler: Here’s a passage I almost dumped precisely because I thought it sounded like fiction and, therefore, I feared, less believable—something a writer might impose instead of documenting. Now I’m glad I left it, since I hear my mother’s questions in a way I didn’t hear it before. I suppose that’s what good fiction does; it opens space for understanding.



One morning, after I’d taken her into my arms and rolled with her to the side of the bed so Lauren could wash and powder her, “You’re a hummingbird, Mommy,” I said. She was almost weightless by then, skin on bones.


“What do we owe a hummingbird?” she wonders to me. “It flies so far, over the ocean.”


“I don’t know that we owe it anything. It’s on its own, and flies.”


“Yes,” she says, and repeats it, “Yes.” Then after a long pause, she whispers something I can’t hear. I lean forward so my ear is close to her mouth to hear.


“I can’t find…. it’s in my room, the letters on a page, given to life when….”


I wait for her, no hurry now, no place to get, nothing but here.


She starts again, as before she’d start up walking, and then suddenly pull at my arm.


“Yes,” she whispers again.




And then, after another pause, a quiet exclamation.


“Oh, look! Look at that!”


But her eyes aren’t directed to anything I can see. I wait, say nothing.


She begins slowly, letter by letter, as if one by one she’s discovering them and not really talking to me at all.


I waited and listened, said nothing as letter by letter she spelled it. “B-e-a-u-t-y.”



Silverberry: That gives me chills.


The whole question of whether your mom had Alzheimer’s seems moot to me. You met her where she was, and it seemed to me that in communicating with her on the level of metaphor, the two of you connected. She felt understood, and there was increased closeness.


Adler: For me, whether or not my mother was demented or had Alzheimer’s wasn’t at all a moot point. It was hugely important — and the energy for the book I think, came from having to dislodge that kind of labeling that was so painful for both of us. While I was changing my life to try to take care of my mother I had the added difficulty of having to create a space for us to live in beyond the reductive and foolish confines of the experts, or those with various kinds of power. My mother, a woman who only a decade earlier had been valued as a wife, mother, professional and beauty, had become, with widowhood and aging, invisible in the same social, familial and professional network where she’d once had status, dismissed as almost irrelevant — or patronized. And as someone committed to staying with her I lost status as well, because caregiving is devalued. So there we were, two professional women who had counted on “counting”, one reduced to the status of “demented” and the other to a daughter with nothing more “important” to do than take care of a mother. I don’t deny that old women can have Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia. But much of what people call dementia is a new way of experiencing and thinking that’s hard for us to understand. Sometimes it’s also a side effect of prescription drugs. When my mother was put on a new drug, for example, she became stone deaf almost immediately. Her doctor — and most disturbingly, her friends, chalked it up to “the aging process’ and encouraged me — in low understanding tones — to accept it. But I knew my mother wasn’t going to go deaf overnight. l insisted we go to a different, older doctor she’d seen before she was routed to a specialist. He did some research and discovered that the drug, in a small number of cases, caused deafness. As soon as she stopped taking the drug, her hearing was perfect again.


I did struggle with my mother’s ‘ding-y-ness’, though, and that struggle is at the core of the memoir-shall-we-call-it-a-novel. But I found that if I was willing to be with her wherever she took me and really speak to that, not what I was expecting, the ding-y-ness subsided and the communication was satisfying, meaningful, and profound. A four-year-old child discovering and naming her world is applauded when she says something like, “Mommy, I woke up this morning, the sun was blooming and the sky reared to the mountain”. But when a ninety-three year old says she’s “in the salmon” it can raise some eyebrows. But I knew she was “getting” something that’s true. Old people are shut out of conversations, dismissed, categorized, dis-empowered, cutified or abandoned because we are too ignorant or busy to hear what they’re telling us about a place we haven’t yet been.


Silverberry: I remember when you were working on the memoir you told me that you were going off to write and hoped that you could write something true. That phrase stuck with me and I’ve thought about it a lot with my own writing. True means a lot of things to different people. What does it mean to you? How do bring it forth? How do you know when you have it?


Adler: I probably said that because I was remembering Hemmingway had written something to that effect — I think it’s something like — The job of a writer is to write one true thing. That’s what I tell my English students. Write one true thing. It’s an attempt to anchor what they write in their own experience, to move the writing from the fingers somewhere down toward the gut.


I suppose “truth” has something to do with honesty, with as far as we can go, in any particular work, with what’s most honest. It’s a process and a struggle. I didn’t know if I was saying something true or when I told my mother that I knew something would “catch” her once she let go. I said it and then wondered if I should have, if I was merely a frightened coward and a liar. But those words came to me from some other place in me and it was clear that they were “true” in a way that I didn’t understand. They were beyond art, beyond intention. Of course this sounds like a conceit. Like the Singer of Tales invoking the Muse at the opening of an epic poem.


But why not? Your question is, I think, at the core of all our lives and subsequently at the core of our attempts at writing them. It’s about trying not to mystify or justify but also not to wallow in self-pity and despair. It must be about getting past the self, even as we know that’s impossible.


Silverberry: Readers can find a link to your website below, where they can purchase a copy of I’ll Close My Eyes (But I Won’t Be Asleep):


Purchase on Elisa Adler’s Website


Purchase on Amazon


Purchase on Barnes and Noble

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