“Wife, Just Let Go: Zen, Alzheimer’s, and Love” holds lessons for us all

The main reason Alzheimer’s is such a merciless disease is because it eviscerates memory, thereby disabling not just everyday cognitive function (e.g., pull on your socks before your shoes) but also the intimate connective tissue of relationships. So it is doubly poignant to read in Diane Saltoon-Briggs’ book “Wife, Just Let Go: Zen, Alzheimer’s, and Love” that her late husband, Beat-inspired “Ruined Time” author Robert Briggs, retained not only his love of poetry but also his ability to reflect upon and celebrate aging — even as he “steadily lost the ability to converse.” It is one of several moving elements in her slim memoir recounting how she strived to be a living “memory bank”
for the intelligent, dignified man
who’d made her feel safe and beloved since their first meeting in San Francisco in 1977.

It’s a very personal book. The “Zen” in its subtitle references the meditation practice they’d shared for decades; scenes of meditation and tea ceremonies depict quiet respites from Alzheimer’s onslaught, and illuminate the quality of their life in artistic communities in California, Oregon and New York as much as Briggs’ poetry readings with his jazz trio. More than anything, Saltoon’s poems and recollections show how the couple relied on creativity to stay connected as the disease eroded Briggs’ mind and body. As many caregivers of loved ones with Alzheimer’s can attest, that was a true achievement. “We never lost the ability to communicate emotionally,” Saltoon writes, adding, “the creative process in the brain, however limited by Alzheimer’s, remains accessible.”

Her heartfelt pieces bracket poems and prose written by Briggs throughout his life; in the three years before his death in 2015, his thoughts became more nonlinear yet retained surprising insights. The surreal “gifts” the disease grants include, to Saltoon, “Awareness, Acceptance and Appreciation”; to Briggs, the realization that “blue sky … seems bluer wherever I am.” Poetry and music, especially jazz, continued to stimulate him; this was a man who’d once declared, “Jazz is to music what poetry is to knowing.” When he could no longer write he still gripped a pen and paper like comforting emblems of identity. Toward the end, when clocks were incomprehensible puzzles to him, Saltoon notes one of his enduring lessons to her: “Time is of no consequence … It is just the moment that counts.”

— Bliss Bowen

Diana Saltoon-Briggs discusses “Wife, Just Let Go: Zen, Alzheimer’s, and Love” at Diesel Bookstore (225 26th St., Ste. 33, Santa Monica) from 6:30 to 7:30 p.m. Thursday, April 5. Free admission. Call (310) 576-9960 or visit dianasaltoon.blogspot.com.