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Tasha book review by Brian Morton

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It took novelist Brian Morton decades to realize he didn’t always have to say yes to his mother. “It can take a great deal of life to learn that you don’t always have to be this good.” Welcome to “Tasha: Memoirs of a Son,” Morton’s invigorating account of his late mother’s final years.

Morton’s novels – including the magnificent “Starting Out in the Evening”, which became an equally beautiful film with Frank Langella – all have in common a calm and caring voice that imbues the prose with an ironic and painful tenderness, as if shaking her head at the human madness he describes. That same voice backs up those memoirs, opening with the startling image of Morton’s 85-year-old mother’s car slowly filling with water, stalled in a terrible rainstorm en route to the dance recital. of a granddaughter.

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Dramatically, Morton looks back on an early memory of himself, 4, and his sister, 7, watching his mother jump off a moving train – thankfully not too hurt.

It is a useful reference. Morton knew his mother was determined to make it to the recital, storm or not. But, he writes, “I had learned long ago that when I tried to talk her out of doing something she intended, I didn’t stand a chance.” This impasse defines the predicament of the adult son throughout his life. The stakes have now skyrocketed: the event of the storm causes her mother to have a stroke, precipitating a steady decline that she denies almost every step of the way. Morton’s burden looms: “I had managed to keep her at bay for many years…and it was comfortable for me.” This distance, he knew, was about to change. “I might have to call on different abilities within myself, and I didn’t want to.”

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Checking him into a rehabilitation hospital, he is filled with touching hope: “Anything that can be fixed, we will help fix it. … The little stroke could be a turning point.

Alas, Tasha refuses “the audiologist, the urologist and the shrink, and although she continues to undergo physical therapy, she will not take it seriously”. She won’t let Morton remove a single stick from his house full of trash, cat feces and dead mice. Morton needs to get his driver’s license. She stops changing her clothes; her peers at the senior center complain. (She remains “almost savage in her refusal to even look at us. … My mother’s mind was alien to me now.”) Alternately furious or eager for Morton’s care, she can still occasionally bristle with logic, as when she argues with a nurse. on the existence of God: “Thus [life’s atrocities are] like a tv show [God]? A TV show he doesn’t really like but doesn’t turn off? At that, Morton couldn’t suppress his pride, nor his laughter.

“How can you see your parents clearly?” Morton wonders. He’s not sure he’ll ever be able to, but to his extreme credit he gives it his all, passionately recounting his mother’s gnarled past – daughter, wife, widow, mother, teacher, union activist – intertwined with his own current exhaustion, exasperation and anguish (at one point, Tasha wanders down the highway on foot in the middle of the night).

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Caregivers of elderly parents may be stunned – also mildly relieved – to recognize various elements: desperate search, trial after trial (some involving abusive caregivers go terribly wrong) and rage driven by guilt. Then there are the desperate efforts to persuade the grieving senior to consider assisted living and the harsh realities in many such facilities.

Morton observes: “‘To be mortal’ [by surgeon/author Atul Gawande] is a book about how we treat the elderly. A book like this…will make you aware of the very few places where things are done right, which always turn out to be too far away to be of any use to you. And: “When caring for an aging parent, life is filled with…situations that make assumptions inevitable…where you have to decide how much you should demand and how little you can get by.”

Truth: I found “Tasha” addictive. I couldn’t even slow down. Why? Its surprising details, its intrepid representations and the curiosity it arouses: how could Morton “solve” the insoluble? Best is Morton’s witty and searing honesty – noting his fear, when a phrase suddenly escapes him, “of my own madness to come”.

“I love you,” he tells Tasha at a (typically) unfortunate moment.

“I always knew that,” she replies. “But that doesn’t help.”

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Complex, arduous but satisfying calculation seeps in. Morton finds his mother’s diary, and he divulges passages from it that allow us to better understand his loneliness, the occasional resentment of his adult children, and his helplessness in the face of waning energy. “People get tired. She got tired. Morton also honors the best in himself from his parents, who encourage him to choose to write and teach. “Tasha” comes as both a cry from the heart and a stirring testament – the painstaking, courageous and generous assembly of an extremely difficult puzzle.

Joan Frank’s latest novel is “The Outlook for Earthlings”. Concurrent works are “Where You’re All Going: Four Novellas” and “Try to Get Lost: Essays on Travel and Place”.

Avid ReaderPress/Simon & Schuster. 208 pages. $28

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