Book review: The Year My Family Unravelled, Cynthia Dearborn

How do you go about looking after an ailing aged parent when you are halfway across the world from each other?

‘Nine months most women get to prepare themselves. Me? Nine days. In nine days, I’ll be saddled with an obstinate man who’s been captaining his ship in his own errant way for longer than I’ve been alive.’

Cynthia Dearborn

In The Year My Family Unravelled, Cynthia Dearborn documents the disappearance of the black matter of her father’s brain, tracing his descent into dementia – a decline which does not present the easiest of circumstances to coordinate by long distance call. 

In his new world anything might happen. His daughter, Cynthia, might be away in Australia, though it was only last night that she visited him in Seattle. Oranges may be so large they need to be stored in the bathtub. Someone might come steal the car, again and again. 

Like Sarah Holland-Batts’ father in the Stella Prize-winning poetry collection, The Jaguar, or perhaps even Elegy for Iris, John Bayley’s 1999 memoir of his love for Iris Murdoch, Dearborn’s father is in mortal danger. Page by page her father’s difficulties present Dearborn with new challenges, particularly as she is now living with her partner and teaching at an Australian university, while he obstinately remains living at home in Seattle. 

Dearborn’s journey would be familiar to anyone with a loved-one rapidly losing thoughts and memories: to witness a brain being ravaged by unstoppable decline is never easy. Yet in this memoir, the rights of the living are never denied. As a sensitive soul, Dearborn shows no inclination to take over. Instead she waits patiently for her father and his wife to adjust; to prepare for the coming collapse, often questioning her own role and the little authority she has over a domineering, often disappointing, and always authoritarian father, whom despite all, she deeply loves.

Throughout her tumultuous year, Dearborn remains unclear of her role and uncertain of her right to take charge. It is this central struggle which commands the lyric prose as Dearborn begins to lose her living father, having already lost her mother. Even now she grieves the childhood lost while counting out her mother’s pills: 

‘The letters on the screen run amok. Clusters of consonants appear, sporadic semicolons, untranslatable gibberish. Years of labour have come to this, a cryptic language inserting itself into my manuscript; indecipherable segments, lines impossible to decode. Ah, but no, says a wise old voice. This is the wild language of grief, a language everybody understands.’

As Dearborn begins to live on high alert, she becomes a transnational caregiver to her coupon-collecting father, who lacks emotional intelligence; a father she has spent a life holding on to, and in this, his final year, she drafts a lesson in how to let go of an obstinate man.

Immobilization for Dearborn lands as it does in Sarah Holland-Batt’s exploration of Parkinson’s disease, where the trauma of her father’s disease ‘arrives like a tsunami’. Yet Dearborn’s father has his tenderness, his soft underbelly, which he seems to access in his collection of poems, now assembled on the page like a family photo album that prompts reminders of life as lived, from Philip Larkin to Anne Sexton and Dorothy Parker. The present may have become a foreign land, but Dearborn’s father can still recite his favourite poems on her answering machine, such as this gem from Ella Wheeler Wilcox circa 1914:

Fling my past behind me, like a robe
Worn threadbare in the seams, and out of date.
I have outgrown it.

Ella Wheeler Wilcox

As her father’s voice leaps down the phone, his idiosyncrasies render every appearance a familiar presence, brought to life as he hollers ‘Cynnn-thi-aa’ in his endearing greeting.

Read: Magazine review: Meanjin Winter 2023, edited by Esther Anatolitis 

It takes a community to raise a child; so it does when raising a book. Dearborn’s list of thanks is warm and wide, acknowledging the literary community it took to birth this complex story – from Katherine Heyman to Nadine Davidoff and Jane Novak. 

This heartfelt memoir presents a roadmap with which to navigate one of the greatest challenges of any life; that of stepping up as a parent’s life winds down, becoming the carer of those who loved us as our most vulnerable, who are now in need of care themselves.

The Year My Family Unravelled by Cynthia Dearborn
: Affirm Press
ISBN: 9781922930200
Format: Paperback
Pages: 320 pp
Release Date: May 2023
RRP: $34.99

Elizabeth Walton is a freelance writer and musician. Her words and music have appeared in The Weekend Australian, Oz Arts and ABC Radio and internationally.