cover image Memory’s Last Breath: Field Notes on My Dementia

Memory’s Last Breath: Field Notes on My Dementia

Gerda Saunders. Hachette, $27 (288p) ISBN 978-0-316-50262-7

Saunders (Blessings on the Sheep Dog) writes bravely about her early-onset dementia diagnosis, and nicely bridges the intensely personal experience of her failing mind with examinations of neurological science. Saunders, who emigrated to the U.S. from South Africa in 1984, includes “Dementia Field Notes” sidebars throughout the book that record ever-worsening daily struggles. These stand in contrast with the main text, in which she explores the essence of self, identity, and memories. Her evocative writing shows her to be a researcher and craftswoman, and to the reader her faculties seem undiminished. Saunders reflects on more than 60 years as a life-affirming dividual, an anthropology term that acknowledges that deep connections come from communal bonds continually established throughout a lifetime. She writes about her loving family life in her formative years as a white South African during apartheid, the cross-cultural experience of a new life in the U.S., and the challenges of parenting and academic life. Saunders draws on all of these experiences to guide readers through a primer on neuroscience, the unreliability of memory, and even the place of humans in the cosmos. Her discussion of whether and when to pursue assisted suicide is smart and does not diminish the hopeful voice of a self-described “Doña Quixote” as she fights her mental descent with dignity. (June)