'Healing Touch' Stories Portray Loss and Laughter Pulitzer Prize-winning author Richard Russo edited and contributed to a new volume called A Healing Touch: True Stories of Life, Death, and Hospice. He says the book that he and his five fellow writers thought would be about loss and grief turned into something very different.
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'Healing Touch' Stories Portray Loss and Laughter

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'Healing Touch' Stories Portray Loss and Laughter

'Healing Touch' Stories Portray Loss and Laughter

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One day a 1994 Lee Duff, a school administrator in Maine came home and couldn't find his wife, Ann. When she finally did arrive home she had a puzzled anxious look on her face and told her husband, funny thing just happened, I couldn't remember how to get home.

The story of Ann Duff's slow decline into Alzheimer's at an early age and Lee Duff's devotion to her is one of the stories in a small new collection called "A Healing Touch: True Stories of Life, Death, and Hospice." Six authors write portraits of people who have passed through hospice care in and around Waterville, Maine.

The slim volume which goes to benefit the hospice volunteers of the Waterville area was edited by Richard Russo, the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist of "Empire Falls" and other books. Gerry Boyle, Wesley McNair, Bill Roorbach, Susan Sterling, and Monica Wood are the other main writers who have contributed. Richard Russo joins us now from the studios at Colby College in Maine. Thank you so much for being with us.

Mr. RICHARD RUSSO (Novelist): It's great to be here Scott.

SIMON: And first, let me ask you about Lee Duff. Your fierce and unrelenting racquetball partner.

Mr. RUSSO: That's correct. Yeah.

SIMON: And I gather that's how you certainly first got to know him. I didn't know until reading your story here that when Alzheimer's strikes somebody at a relatively early age the decline is steep and rapid isn't it?

Mr. RUSSO: That's true and I didn't know that either. For a relatively young woman and a relatively young man, Lee's ordeal and Ann's ordeal was horrific and the racquetball that played was kind of an oasis for him to hit a ball and hit it as hard as you can.

SIMON: I think you called it draining the poison.

Mr. RUSSO: That's right.

SIMON: How old was Ann, do you recall?

Mr. RUSSO: I believe Ann was in her late 40s at the time, perhaps early 50s.

SIMON: Lee Duff saw his wife become recognizable in face only.

Mr. RUSSO: That's right. His is a story - Ann's is the story of I think the loss of an identity and when you begin to lose yourself, the caregiver begins to run the risk of losing some of himself too. Lee, watching Ann's disintegration of humor, of memory, all of the things that you love most about a loved one, you're essentially living with a stranger.

SIMON: He found particularly hard to take the fact that he couldn't really talk to her about his day.

Mr. RUSSO: Yeah, Alzheimer's patients often, and this was the case with Ann, need to be protected. She, in her most lucid moments was aware of what she was losing, that she wasn't the woman today that she was yesterday or the day before. And this makes the world very terrifying and so what Lee found was that he really couldn't talk about his day at all, and of course, nothing was happening in her days except further loss and terror.

SIMON: Eventually Lee Duff had to put Ann into a facility and could you help us understand what went through his mind?

Mr. RUSSO: Lee knew, and his friends knew that he was in grave danger himself. If he didn't get help, and he got help first of all by having various people come into the home, but ultimately Ann had to be placed in an institution that could provide what she needed pretty much around the clock.

SIMON: We should make plain for our listeners that Ann in fact did die after I think about nine years.

Mr. RUSSO: Yes, yeah.

SIMON: At the heart of these stories I gather is a perception that all of your writers had that hospices are not just places people go to die, but where a whole community of people come to learn about life.

Mr. RUSSO: One of things that surprised all of us writers is that we thought we were going to be writing some sort of a book about loss and about grief and we ended up writing a book about life. There was lots of laughter, lots of joy that came out of these stories, and I think for the people who told us their stories and for people who read this book, they're going to come to the conclusion that whatever it is that they may be going through right now, they're not alone. If you have Alzheimer's, there's probably going to be somebody in your local hospice who has been through, if you're a caregiver, what Lee Duff went through.

Lee is now counseling patients and caregivers with Alzheimer's. And Monica Wood, one of my favorite stories in the piece is that Monica Wood's story of a hospice volunteer who does music therapy for people at the end of their lives and Monica comes from a musical family, she and her sister sang throughout life and Monica, as she's talking too this wonderful hospice volunteer is wondering to herself, why didn't we ever sing when my mother became ill? And she answers that question for herself.

(Soundbite of singing)

SIMON: Mr. Russo, thanks so much.

Mr. RUSSO: Scott, thank you so much.

SIMON: Richard Russo, he's edited A Healing Touch.

(Soundbite of singing)

SIMON: You can read a Richard Russo excerpt from "A Healing Touch: True Stories of Life, Death, and Hospice" at our website, npr.org/books. And you're listening to WEEKEND EDITION SATURDAY from NPR News.

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