After The Forgetting

December 1st, 2008 | Produced by Erica Heilman

Photo of Marjorie

This is a delicate story about love and dementia. It weaves memory and moments through the intertwined lives of Greg Sharrow, his mother Marj, and his husband Bob. And, if you’re wrestling with a tricky emotional story, producer Erica Heilman has written usefully on Transom about the process of making this meditation. As she says, she wanted to “offer people a picture of how one family is managing dementia in a really graceful, loving way. I wanted to achieve this without ever using words like ‘loving’ or ‘graceful’.” Jay A

About After The Forgetting

Greg and Marj

Greg and Marj

This story started in my living room. I was teaching a youth radio class for the Vermont Folklife Center, and Greg Sharrow, my colleague and friend from the Folklife Center had agreed to a marathon interview with three high schools kids. I’d given the kids a few choice details about Greg’s life—of which there are many—and they’d each prepared some questions. Greg is perfect for anyone’s first interview. He’s completely open. He’ll answer anything. And he speaks in complete sentences. One of the kids had elected to talk with Greg about his mother who has dementia. It was a phenomenal interview. The kid dropped out of the youth radio project and I fell in love with the tape and decided to start working on a story about Greg and his mother.

I knew Marj. I’d met her at parties and eaten dinner with her at Greg and Bob’s. I’d sat in the backseat a few times when Greg drove her back to her assisted living place. I remember her exclaiming about the lights driving past Wendy’s, ‘Look at all that RED!’

Greg and I both did recordings at the dinner table, which was no easy proposition in a house with sixteen fish tanks and a cockatiel. Still, some nice stuff came of it. I started to think I’d frame the whole story around a single dinner. I spent a lot of hours making a cutlery track, which I thought I might run under the whole show…so when you were listening to an interview segment with Greg, for instance, you could still hear the dinner conversation in the background, and Greg would fade out and we’d come back to the conversation at dinner. Sort of like Glen Gould’s Idea of North. In the end it didn’t work. I didn’t have enough well-recorded dinner conversation to do it, and there wasn’t enough momentum in the story. I had to ditch the idea, and the cutlery track. Still, the dinner conversation is threaded through the story, and it starts and ends at the dinner table.

My favorite audio segments came from the interviews that Greg did with his mother on the couch at his house. They are the most relaxed and intimate; Marj’s mind is at its clearest, and some of the best non sequiturs happen in these conversations. ‘What would you like to do? Would you like to go on and on?’ I edited these sections pretty heavily and slowed them down a lot. I wanted it to feel like they were floating above the rest of the story somehow.

Bob and Marj

Bob and Marj

When the story was about an hour long, I sent it to SALT Institute’s Rob Rosenthal who had agreed to mentor me on this project as part of the AIR mentorship program. I had read about this mentoring program on the AIR website and jumped at the chance. Essentially, AIR offers its members four hours of advice time with a radio producer. I work alone and I don’t have any associates in radio. It was incredible to be able to talk with someone about this story at that uncomfortable stage of production when you’re wondering, ‘What is this? And who cares?’

Rob was incredible. He listened to the show and did two thorough paper edits, and his criticism helped me take a giant step back from the story and look at it fresh. He made excellent structural suggestions and I remember he pushed me hard to look for conflict. He was left wondering what was at stake for these people. I remember really studying the end of the show then, and noticing that it felt saccharin and bloated. In that initial version, Greg went on and on about all that his mother has taught him about being alive. At a certain time I really loved that tape. What he was saying seemed important and true. But I was also made uncomfortable by it somehow. It felt like a song that only I liked and that I was probably going to get sick of.

Marj and Bob

Marj and Bob

So I went back and interviewed Greg again. I remember we had kind of a snippy interview. I was really pushing him to tell me where the cracks were—what was hard or uncomfortable or maddening or even boring about having a mother who has dementia. He seemed put off by the questions and finally he became kind of exasperated with me and said, ‘I don’t care if she remembers me by name or not. I can’t imagine my relationship with my mother being any better than it is right now. There’s no loss here.’ And that became the end of the story. It summed up everything he’d said in the longer version, but it was short, incisive, and salty instead of sweet.

It seems that once your memory goes, what’s left are the basic beliefs you’ve carried around for a lifetime about yourself and the world. Both Marj and Greg approach their lives with a lot of passion and curiosity and it’s what Marj is left with now that her memory is gone. Her relationship with Greg continues to be deeply familiar and loving even though she can’t remember his name, and he’s still endlessly interested in her. After I spend time with them, I always feel like I’ve learned a lot about how to live well. I hoped that I could capture some of what I love about this family on tape, and also offer people a picture of how one family is managing dementia in a really graceful, loving way. I wanted to achieve this without ever using words like ‘loving’ or ‘graceful’. I wanted it to be simple, without any commentary or sanctimony. I hope I’ve managed to give listeners a sense of this family and how they live, and I’d sure welcome any feedback. Thanks so much for listening.

Marj watering

Marj watering

About The Music

I wanted to use ukulele in this story. It seemed like the right instrument to complement Marj, and I thought that old musical theater tunes would work well. Marj’s favorite song is Stardust. The only thing I really didn’t want the music to do was make me feel any particular, identifiable emotion. I wanted Marj and Greg and Bob to do that.

I don’t play ukulele but my friend Brian’s friend Karinne Keithley does. He introduced us via email and we hit it off and she started sending humming, strumming, singing, fast and slow versions of old classical musical theater songs. And some Bob Dylan. We’ve still never met in person. I love her music and I think it complements the story really well. She has a great website where you can learn more about her and she has a show at WFMU. You can find links below.

Tech Notes

All the audio was recorded on Sennheiser 421 II’s. For the dinner table audio, Greg and I used two microphones. We tried hanging one from the ceiling and putting one on the table. We also tried putting one on a stand in the region of Marj’s mouth and one on a table stand. This last setup worked the best for the dinner table. I recorded into a PMD 670.

I edited the show with Soundtrack Pro, which is the audio editing component of Final Cut Pro. I used to use Pro Tools until a couple years ago, but when I had to pay for a PT upgrade because I’d changed my operating system, I gave up on it. I’d been teaching kids on Soundtrack Pro because it seemed a little more visual and intuitive than Pro Tools, and I decided to make the switch myself. So far I don’t see any limitations to the program.

About Marj and Greg and Bob

Marj is now ninety-two and lives at a residential care facility in Rutland, Vermont. She goes to dinner at Greg and Bob’s house two to three times per week, depending on the week.

Bob Hooker is the administrative assistant at the Vermont Folklife Center, and an abstract painter. Greg Sharrow is the director of education at the Vermont Folklife Center. Bob and Greg have been married since 2001. They live in Bob’s late grandparents’ home, which is a former auto garage.

About Erica Heilman

Erica Heilman, photo by Josh Larkin

Erica Heilman, photo by Josh Larkin

Erica Heilman is an independent radio producer and private investigator. She has done a lot of collaborative work with Greg Sharrow, the director of education at the Vermont Folklife Center. She’s in the process of launching Outpost Audio, a business that produces podcasts and website audio. Erica lives in Montpelier, Vermont, with her five-year-old son, Henry.

After the Forgetting was produced for Vermont Folklife Center Media.

 


Additional Support for this work provided by
National Endowment for the Arts logo


27 Comments on “After The Forgetting”

  • Jon Miller says:
    Such a deeply lovely piece

    Erica, I wish had a burning question for you (I was actually dying to know how you positioned your mics, but you answered that in your background notes) but I can’t resist the urge to tell you how terrific I think this is. You’ve made so many good decisions! Greg, Bob and Marj are wonderful talkers, but there’s a lot of fancy footwork on your part. Like halfway in, when you zing back and forth between Greg and Bob, so they overlap each other; it’s like a little counterpoint moment in a musical piece. In fact there are many places where you exercise a musical sense of pacing and restraint — for instance, where Bob (I think) mentions in interview how Marj is only now, at 91, able to say "I love you," and then when you cut to the conversation, you don’t rush it — it takes a few bars before she says that very thing. And the ending is so well handled — Greg’s passionate (and beautiful) point about how there’s no loss, how he can’t imagine his relationship being better, followed by the totally appropriate silliness of turning off the recorder. He’s said what he needs to say, and now it’s time to get on with things.

    Okay, so here’s a question: How important is it that these people are so articulate? Is the piece about their relationship, or the things they say about it? Thanks!

  • EricaHeilman says:
    reply to Jon’s great message

    Jon,

    I just got home from JAIL where I was interviewing one sex offender about another sex offender…..so you can imagine how happy I was to get home and see THIS message. Thank you for saving my weekend.

    I think it was a real problem–in early versions of this show– that Greg is so articulate. Or…maybe the problem was that he sounded too consistently evolved. There weren’t any cracks. There still aren’t any cracks. There’s no real CONFLICT in this story.

    But I can hear Greg figuring out what he means AS he’s talking in this story. He doesn’t sound canned, or pat to me. I think you just can’t hear too many of his stories at once. They cancel each other out.

    Bob didn’t actually come into the story until pretty late in the game. I wanted Bob to kind of take Greg down a notch. I hope that he does that a little. He’s a little more irreverent. Blunt.

    I think the show is MOST about the relationship when Marj and Greg are talking with each other on the couch. In these sections, I just like to hear the sounds of their voices. There is something deeply familiar between them there. It’s so fascinating to me–that they can be so completely at ease as mother and son, even though she can’t remember what their relationship is called or what exactly it is. I stretched those parts way out and removed a lot of language. But I maintain that the tone is intact. It’s funny how sometimes when you remove MOST of the language in a tape, it actually more closely approximates the actual experience.

    At first the show was almost exclusively dinner conversation. Long, wandering, circular conversations. I loved it…I loved the silences that gave way to stories and then non sequiturs then silence. But in the end it just seemed like it wasn’t moving forward. But then it really was almost exclusively about the dynamic among these three people.

    I hope I even APPROXIMATELY answered your question and I really appreciate your generous comments. Thanks Jon,

    erica

  • Lu says:
    What a beautiful job you’ve done here!

    I always listen to stories about about people with dementia with caution. So often the forgotten children are so distressed that conversations take on the feeling of an interrogation or worse, a kind of torture. Your story, on the other hand, is just the opposite – patience absolutely oozing from Greg and Bob. It’s unusual how well they all seem to roll with it. Marj, too. Incredibly patient with herself, like when she admits she didn’t remember that men could marry men. I also love how Bob and Greg’s relationship story unfolds over time… Did you struggle deciding how much of Bob and Greg’s story would be told? Or did you know from the start that you would their story through Marj?

  • EricaHeilman says:
    Bob and Greg

    Hi Lu. THANK YOU for your message. Yeah. Their patience is pretty absolute. One very important reason they maintain such patience is that Marj folds into the regular routine of their lives so well. Funny…when Marj FIRST walks into Greg’s and Bob’s house–into a home that is, essentially, a path through vast collections of objects–she will almost invariably say, ‘now THIS is my kind of living.’ Until recently, Bob and Marj would paint together for hours. Or chop vegetables before dinner. There’s a lot of circular conversation, but there’s a lot of silence too.

    On the Greg/Bob story. That’s a really interesting question. The first thing that comes to mind is that I feel the segments at the top–that communicate all the pertinent relationship information–they seem to take a long time. I guess that’s one obvious drawback of a non-narrated story. It can take forever to just get the puzzle pieces on the board. But I don’t think I really thought about how much of the Bob/Greg story would be told. I mean the fact of their homosexuality and marriage was only really relevant when it occurred to Marj. What I really love most about Greg’s and Bob’s relationship is how supple it is. There is none of that bristling or bracing or resign that often accompanies long marriages. I guess I was hoping to capture THAT more than anything.

  • Victoria Estok says:
    breathing life into illness

    Erica,

    Your audio piece not only expresses patience and of the Bob, Marj, and Greg but also (seemingly effortlessly) inspires patience in the listener. Nothing heavy handed about this piece at all! Personally, certain things Marj said, reminded me of my great aunt who has been struggling with mood and memory pretty severely now for the last few months(and is currently hospitalized). I found myself reminded and in a sense more aware about how being present when I spoke to her last night … it’s not that she reminds me of Marj but rather her paradoxical fragileness and strength do. No questions from me. Just thanks…

  • Samantha Bailey says:
    thank you

    It’s a beautiful piece about some ordinary extraordinary people. There’s quirkiness and real gentleness and mundaneness about these people and how they live and relate. And they lean on, rest on, a lot of faith and trust in each other. I love how the sense familiarity pervades the story, even when Marj is forgetting. And how valuable the practice of being in the present with the relationship is, which reminds me how valuable it would be if I did that in any of my relationships.

  • Elizabeth Richmond says:
    beautiful soul

    Erica – I am so proud of you. You have an incredible work here. So brilliantly done. Bob and Greg are absolutely wonderful and so patient. And, Marj, what an absolutely beautiful soul and spirit she has. And the interlude music is beautiful and so very fitting. And I hope Marj always has her Brilliant RED lipstick to wear and I hope she keeps up with her "extravagant" ways.

    xo,
    Elizabeth Richmond

  • Anne Basting says:
    There’s More than Tragedy in Forgetting…

    I’m happy to have learned about this piece – there is a whole world out there that takes place AFTER the forgetting, but usually we only hear about the deep loss and sorrow. That is certainly a part of the experience of dementia. Some people experience personality changes that aren’t as loving as Marj’s. But Marj, Greg, and Bob are a great example of how the experience of aging and dementia can bring us to a deeper understanding of ourselves and each other, even – dare I say – the meaning of our lives here together. The names may fade, but, as Marj so eloquently shows us in the opening section of this piece, the names aren’t really all that important. The emotions are. And those stay nearly all the way to the end.
    Thanks for this thoughtful work.

    Anne Basting
    http://www.forgetmemory.org
    http://www.timeslips.org
    http://www.aging.uwm.edu

  • brendah555 says:
    thank you!

    Hi Erica- I loved this piece. There wasn’t a moment when I wasn’t paying attention and Marj and Greg and Bob are so familiar to me now– I can’t even talk about the "people" in your piece– I must name them because I feel like I know them (a little bit) and care about them (much more) because they have shared something so personal with me. It was an intimate experience and I am grateful to you and to them for doing this. As far as a piece of work, I loved and appreciated the range of expression you covered both in terms of emotion as well as musically. Sparse, dense, fast and slow, jumbled and exposed- it was a wonderful listening experience and I thank you again. More. Encore!

  • kristen kosmas says:
    wonderful! wonderful!

    I loved having dinner with Bob and Greg and Marj (and you and Karinne)! I felt this to be a story about openness, as much as anything, and I appreciated it and it touched me. I have thought over and over about Greg glueing that vase back together piece by piece when he was a kid… I loved how it could have been a metaphor, but really isn’t! I mean: part of the beauty of this seems to be in accepting the fractured nature of things as they are.
    I loved how much there was to SEE while I listened to this story. Very beautifully textured, "salty not sweet" is well said. Everything is well said – or rather, articulated in some fashion (sounds of cutlery, layering of voices, spaciousness, delicate singing…) It all tells. Thank you all for sharing this!
    Sincerely,
    Kristen K.
    PS I would be curious how Greg came to that openness of attitude toward his and Marj’s situation. Whether it is a gift of having a mother who sounds so free and accepting herself, or whether there is some wisdom he gained from other places that he would like to share?
    thanks again… kk

  • Ashley Milne-Tyte says:
    Lovely piece

    Having known two people who had Alzheimer’s (one only in his fifties) I loved this piece. I particularly enjoyed the part where Greg and Bob’s impressions of Marj’s nursing home were layered on top of one another – naturally her son thought the place was a dump! It really added a layer to the piece, the fact that there was some stress, some disagreement over just how comfortable her old age really was. All those old ladies, so scathing of her pride in her appearance. Also the discovery, via Bob, that Marj had had a not-so-great marriage (at least that was the impression you got) – that’s just that kind of thing I’ve found out from much older relatives, casually dropped into conversation. It was just lovely to listen to, all the little discoveries about Marj’s life, the fact that they all enjoyed eachother’s company so much. Thanks Erica.

  • Fitzpatrick says:

    This is a very interesting piece and I enjoyed listening to it, twice in fact. Both times I was left wanting more though. Is Marj’s acceptance common among people in her situation? Where does her ability to accept seemingly without judgment come from? Is this part of her personality or an aspect of the illness?

    I wonder if making Greg the primary focus would have been more interesting though, not that Marj isn’t wildly interesting enough. It didn’t sound like the process that brought he and Bob to their current level of acceptance regarding his mother’s illness was entirely smooth. Also, as it would be rather difficult and perhaps a little hard edged to steer the conversation with Marj to less ‘rosey’ topics it would have been possible with Greg and Bob. For example, how does Greg feel about his mother’s revelation she never wanted to get married? His life did depend on it. Also, challenging Greg’s assertion that his relationship with his mother has never been better may have been an interesting avenue to explore. I found it hard to believe as the vast majority of the conversation is Greg leading Marj through memories she frequently seems unaware of but wants to remember seemingly to satisfy Greg. He says they always had a great relationship, and reminds his mother of that fact, but there isn’t enough insight as what that relationship was like before the illness. I think it would have been interesting to explore how their relationship has evolved as Marj’s dementia has taken more of her memory. Maybe get Bob’s perspective on this too, as he is a somewhat less biased third party (he’s very funny too).

    In any case, hope the comments are taken as constructively as they are intended. I think this was really a well put together story, loved the voice overs and the eclectic renditions of Dylan, and enjoyed the window into all three of their lives. Congrats, Seamus

  • EricaHeilman says:
    reply to Seamus

    Seamus,

    thanks a lot for these comments. They seem to beg the question again, ‘where’s the conflict here?’ for which I have no real satisfying answer. Also for which I wish I didn’t really need an answer. I really like stories that have a beginning middle and end and present a conflict or questin and then resolve it. I also like stories that just, well, don’t do any of that. I asked myself about half way through making this show…’is this worth it? There’s no SHAPE to this. There’s no conflict. Is this worth doing?’ I couldn’t really answer these questions but I did know that I was still interested in the story. I went back and pushed and prodded Greg, but I couldn’t get him to introduce a problem or conflict that we could then go in and resolve. Bob offered up some exasperation in pretty measured amounts. But in the end it was just a show about these three people and how they live together when one of them can’t remember very much.

    I think this is a really interesting topic though. I think it IS easier to hang on and listen to a story that has more story momentum and built-in conflict. But there are so many cool sounds and stories that don’t work that way. I would actually really love to hear other radio producers talk about this. If anyone out there is reading this…and if anyone out there is rolling his or her eyes, I’d love to hear why. Does good radio always tell a story that starts and finishes? Does it always need conflict?

    I actually did get some really nice tape about Greg’s childhood and his relationship with his mother as a child…and Marj as a younger, lucid woman. It was in the extra-too-long version of the story, and then it got the big ax. I agree that it would have been interesting to include, but finally–the stories about the past that included ALL of them seemed more interesting.

    I would love to throw out some questions to Greg too…Did adjusting to life with a mother losing memory put strain on yours and Bob’s relationship?
    And how DO you manage to be so self possessed? What’s your reaction to folks asking if there’s any difficulty you’re not revealing??

  • William Benton says:

    This was a very moving and well-done segment. Thank you for sharing their story with us.

    Much respect,
    -William Benton

    PS I really enjoyed Karinne Keithley’s music. It was a subtle compliment; a wonderful parallel with the sweetness and sadness of this story.

  • Bob Volin says:
    Factually and emotionally true

    Fitzpatrick wrote, "Is Marj’s acceptance common among people in her situation?" My Mom has been at an assisted living facility for a year and a half. My experience with her, and my acquaintance with other residents lead me to answer "Yes — very common." My Mom and Marj may be confused, but they are content, and happy to enjoy whatever it is that engages them. The necessary component is security, a feeling of being well cared for. Without this, life is terribly frightening. As for Greg’s assessment of his relationship with Marj, I happily concur. Certainly there are limitations of a sort, but the barnacles have been scraped off the love and trust that are now clearly the things that matter. Mom’s contentedness, her warmth for everyone, these are the gifts she enjoys and gives. Granted, the transition from "normal" life to today was hard, but this is a good time in our lives. Erica and Greg, thank you so much!

  • Nancy Nichols says:
    Knowing Marj

    I grew up knowing Marj. Seeing her walking around town in her paint covered clothes with paint brushes stuck through her bun is among my earliest of memories. The radio piece shows her wonderful eccentricities. I grieve the loss of the vibrant and wonderful woman she was, and celebrate the vibrant and wonderful woman she continues to be. This piece brings comfort to the many of us who have lost loved ones to dementia, are living with those who have dementia, and reminds us of their continued giftedness.

  • carol loehrke says:
    Catching up with an old friend and his mom

    I spent a delightful summer working with Greg in the library of the college in our home town. As I remember back over the many years since we were young, I recall his openness, his spirit, his humor, his acceptance of new things, and his sparkling creativity. We had such fun! His mom was the source of his wit and liveliness.

    Marj was, and still is as we see in your amazing piece, her own self, unafraid to be who she wanted to be. Her reaction to Greg’s marriage to Bob is typical of her "live and let live" spirit. I believe that each of us is like a golf ball, a core with many experiences and alterations wound tightly around it. As we age the tightly wound strings of life fray, our core becomes more exposed. Ultimately that core, or self, is the one we are left with. What a spectacular core Marj Sharrow still has. One that her son not only loves, but accepts as it is now.

    Thank you for letting us in on their lives today.They and Bob are still fantastic people.

  • Betsy Hanger says:
    Erica this piece is a triumph

    of directness and subtlety. So beautifully crafted, without showing any seams at all. I particularly liked the segment when it seemed like Greg and Bob were talking over the postives and negatives of being "there" for Marj. Listening to them gave me insight into the needs of two dear friends who’re still learning to cope with their mother’s Alzheimers. Thank you for teaching us all!

  • michele garbers says:
    Marj

    I have known Marj for most of my life, in fact we celebrated our birthdays together for years. This piece takes me back to the times that I would visit with Marj and Earl. She may not remember everything but she sounds like I remember. Spending time with Marj was always magical. Thanks for the memories.

  • Shirley M. Brauker says:
    Former Angola resident remembering Marj

    I adored Marj from afar, as a young high school art student. I thought I would grow up and be like her… outspoken and immersed in the art world. She had a beautiful artistic house and dressed and embraced fashion like no other woman in our town. I graduated with her son Greg and have been doing my art my entire life. I think she really influenced me and let me know I could be an artist. I’m glad she has kept her individuality.
    Shirley M. Reichard/Brauker

  • Lindsey says:
    I have passed this on

    to other family members who are dealing with parents and memory loss. Thank you for a very moving piece. You have given me a little more clarity – love what it is not what it was.

    Thank you.

  • jill Vickers says:
    Nailed it

    That’s a harsh verb for my reaction, but then being really there for someone whose mind is closing isn’t without its violence. The violence of unbelievable loss and one’s own confusion about what to do.

    The story brought me to tears, tears of recognition of my experience in the words of another. I couldn’t recall my mother’s ever holding me, reading to me, or telling me she loved me although she must have done all of those. But the last two years when dementia had her in its grip, it was all about the love. Her face lit up with it when she’d spot me coming in the door, we laughed well, and she told me she loved me.

    Thanks for the lessons especially the one about being with your daughters. I’ll try to remember that. There’s no finer memento to keep from this final journey.

  • Bert Harting says:
    a very moving piece

    I’ve been listening to PRX radio off-and-on for a couple of months. I’ve now heard this piece four or five times. Each time I think, "Ah — I’ve already heard this… switch to something else." But I don’t. It’s too touching to not listen to again and again. Each time, I pick up on something different. It tells me that dementia isn’t the absolute, terminal end of relationships that we presume it to be. It simply redefines the rules of how to care and love someone, and introduces new possibilities as it does so. Undoubtedly, Greg and Bob experience times when they’re so exasperated with Marj that they don’t know what to do, but it seems like their acceptance of her, on her own terms, will surely sustain them through those trying times.

    Last night, after listening to the piece yet once again, I had a dream about my Mom, who passed away several years ago. I saw her walking down a sidewalk and was surprised because I knew in my dream she’d been gone a long time. I approached her and she seemed to vaguely recognize me and I was filled with joy. We walked along together — I was completely content and at peace with just having her there, although it wasn’t clear to me how she had shown up just then. I didn’t realize how much I missed her.

    Thanks to the producer and the family for providing some clues about how to deal with aging in this most compassionate way. I’ll share this with others.

    Cheers,
    Bert (Bozeman, MT)

  • CindyJacobs says:
    Wonderful!

    I loved this piece! Just listened to it on XM and have to say it really touched me. As I get older, I often wonder if I’ll be forgetting my life, and if I’ll be cared for by one of my children. If so, I hope they do so with the love and grace of Greg and Bob!

    Lovely, lovely piece. Thank you.

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