1325 Home, yoga, dementia
Open Every Window: A Memoir
by Jane Munro
Madeira Park: Douglas & McIntyre, 2021
$28.95 / 9781771622967
Reviewed by Candace Fertile
The positive image of opening windows infuses Jane Munro’s memoir even when life is fraught with what seems like insurmountable challenges. From an early age, it’s clear that Munro wanted to write, and while she has achieved acclaim as a poet (for example, winning the 2015 Griffin Poetry Prize for Blue Sonoma), success was earned with dedication, a dedication at times at odds with other responsibilities, those that are often relegated to women in their role as wife.
The memoir is pieced together from a range of material. Arranged in seven parts, each with a variety of short pieces, and the whole bookended by references to the phases of the moon, the first in Pune, India, in November 2017, and the last in Vancouver in December 2017, Munro’s dedication to writing is matched by her love of and reliance on yoga, which she says kept her “as sane as possible under the circumstances.” The situation overwhelming her and with which she opens the book is the dementia of her second husband, Bob, a man twenty years older than she is, and the person who helped her through the death of her mother.
Among the personal tragedy of losing a loved one to a horrible disease, Munro shows with heart-breaking clarity how our health care system is simply not able to deal with the “tsunami’ of dementia. As the primary care-giver of her husband, Munro is nearly pulled under the wave as the disease relentlessly and slowly reforms and erases the man she loves. The opening piece with Bob’s irrational anger about his wife’s absence (Munro had gone to be with her younger daughter as she gave birth) quickly engages readers and then we are along for the excruciating further decline. Years pass by.
Munro writes with exquisite clarity. The memoir has many moving pieces, but the one that will forever stick in my mind is the description of how doctors treat an ulceration on Bob’s leg. Maggots. Yes, maggots. I knew that maggots are used to eat dead tissue, but that’s all I knew. Munro lets us know the process with fascinating and gruesome precision. A completely different description but equally compelling is one about putting on and wearing a sari.
As Bob’s condition changes, Munro moves into her own life and writes about her family, including her parents, siblings, first husband (Jock), and her children. Raised to be a “good girl,” which means putting others first, Munro was caught in the struggle of all creative women — how to fulfill her duties to family and to herself. Her first marriage appears to founder on convention. Her husband thinks her job is to be a homemaker and his is to earn the money. He is a good man. I can’t imagine Munro saying terrible things about the father of her children, a man who gave her a good life and lots of experiences, but it’s evident that she was suffering under the arrangement. But as is also evident given her second marriage and her commitment to caring for Bob, abandoning responsibilities was not in her DNA.
Homes are integral part of Munro’s world, from the log house her father built for her mother, to the house she and Jock shared with their children in Vancouver, to the house she and Bob built on Vancouver Island. She writes about her love of India and her many visits there, both to visit a partner’s family and for yoga retreats. Munro is a practitioner of Iyengar yoga and her allegiance to it gave her the opportunity to interview BKS Iyengar and take classes with Geeta Iyengar. And she pays respect to her children saying, “The kids gave me an extended childhood. But in other ways, they taught me adult skills: persistence, perhaps the most essential. I could never give up on a child. Or on myself.” And she doesn’t.
Just as Munro broke out of convention in her personal life (while never abandoning responsibilities), she breaks out of the mould of conventional memoir in this book. The small sections, often only a page or two, move back and forth in time and in genre to create the picture of life well-lived and well-considered. For example, she includes letters her father wrote and has a log of Bob’s actions. The one section that doesn’t work for me is a passage from Bob’s point of view. It’s well done, but it took me out of Munro’s mind, and that’s where I needed to be. Bob remains a difficult topic as his illness colours everything about him, and his temper appears established before dementia takes over. Munro is honest about her frustration and anguish, but as usual she ultimately resists being negative about someone she loved. The situation is, of course, another matter.
Being able to see into another person’s life is a gift, especially when that person has had such different experiences and is such a sensitive and compelling writer. Munro’s strength is admirable as is her unflinching commitment to emotional truth.
Candace Fertile has a PhD in English literature from the University of Alberta. She teaches English at Camosun College in Victoria, writes book reviews for several Canadian publications, and is on the editorial board of Room Magazine. Editor’s note: Candace Fertile has recently reviewed books by Arleen Paré, Ian Williams, Amber Dawn, Rachel Rose, Susan Alexander, Katherine Fawcett, Marjorie Celona, and Garry Thomas Morse.
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