In 'Like Falling Through A Cloud,' Eugenia Zukerman Explores Her Changing Mind

Nov 9, 2019

For Alzheimer's Awareness Month, accomplished flutist Eugenia Zukerman has released a new book called Like Falling Through a Cloud: A Lyrical Memoir. It chronicles her internal and emotional journey since a diagnosis of "cognitive difficulties" three years ago.

Just this past September, Zukerman was playing Claude Debussy's "Syrinx" — a piece she figures she's played more than 20,000 times since the age of 10 — when she drew a sudden blank. So although she can't always find the notes these days, Zukerman is persistent in finding the words.

"I want people to know that it's not the end of the world if you have cognitive decline," she says. And although in some cases the disease will impact the person's temperament and ability to experience love, Zukerman says, "It's the opposite for me. I love my family, and friends and dogs more than I ever have."

Eugenia Zukerman and NPR's Scott Simon both read a poem from her new memoir, as well as speak about the moment she realized something was wrong, why she chose poetry as a vehicle for expression and the role music plays in keeping her grounded. Hear their conversation in the audio player above.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Eugenia Zukerman figures that she's played this piece more than 20,000 times - it's Debussy's "Syrinx." But early in September, the accomplished flutist says she was playing the piece and just threw a blank. Eugenia Zukerman has Alzheimer's. She was diagnosed three years ago. Now as Alzheimer's Awareness Month is upon us, the renowned musician and classical music correspondent for "CBS Sunday Morning" - where, I should allow, I am also a contributor - has released a book "Like Falling Through a Cloud: A Lyrical Memoir." Eugenia Zukerman joins us from New York.

Thanks so much for being with us.

EUGENIA ZUKERMAN: It's a pleasure.

SIMON: You've been playing this piece since you were 10 years old, right?

ZUKERMAN: Yes, absolutely.

SIMON: So what was that moment like when you suddenly didn't know it?

ZUKERMAN: It was frightening. As you can well imagine, it's my favorite piece, something that I'd play when I wake up in the morning. And I also loved the connection of these, the - sorry. Just one sec.

SIMON: It's all right.

ZUKERMAN: That's what it's like in my brain these days. But that moment at which I drew a blank, I knew something was very wrong.

SIMON: Dick Novik, your husband, is with you.

Dick, thank you for joining us, too.

DICK NOVIK: Thank you, sir.

SIMON: You and Eugenia confronted this together, didn't you?

NOVIK: Absolutely.

ZUKERMAN: And my children - I kept sort of pushing them off and saying, I'm perfectly fine. But finally, one of my daughters insisted that I go and get tested.

SIMON: Could I get you to read the first poem that's in this memoir?

ZUKERMAN: Yes.

SIMON: "Like Falling Through a Cloud."

ZUKERMAN: "Like Falling Through A Cloud." (Reading) Sometimes, when I wake up, it's dark. Where am I? Sometimes, I know. And sometimes, I have no idea. So I let the night spirits wrap around me and they whisper to me, don't think. You will remember. I lie very still. And then suddenly, like falling through a cloud, I know I am here.

SIMON: What made you decide to tell your story and tell it like this?

ZUKERMAN: After I came back from the hospital, I got up to my apartment, and I sat down and stared at the wall. And for some reason, I picked up a pencil and paper and started writing. And I found it very helpful for myself. And I can't really explain why I did it in verse - that's the way it came out.

SIMON: Can - may I read one of your poems?

ZUKERMAN: Please.

SIMON: This one really got to me. It's marvelous. And Eugenia, you write (reading) maybe mine are lost, or maybe they're rolling around in my head looking for a place to land or maybe not. My daughters tell me to get tested. Tested for what? - I ask, even though I know for what. But it's for what I don't want to know. So let the marbles roll around in a swirl of distracting colors because I don't want to listen to them, the daughters. Because if I hear them, I will be very afraid. And this mother cannot be that mother not ever, never.

ZUKERMAN: You read that so beautifully.

SIMON: Well, it just tears your heart out.

ZUKERMAN: Yeah, connection to children and particularly, I think, mothers to daughters is very, very deep. And I am very, very close to both of my daughters so - and my wonderful little...

NOVIK: Grandchildren.

ZUKERMAN: ...Grandchildren.

SIMON: May I ask how you get through the day every day, what things you've learned to do, make room and time for?

ZUKERMAN: Well, I'm at an interesting moment because I have been very busy. And I see friends. And I keep writing. And I have a lot of things to do. So what keeps me alive are my wonderful husband and many, many people who I see each day, who I don't have to tell them that I am having a problem - they pretty much know at this point. And I just keep going.

SIMON: Some people with what's called cognitive decline retain musical abilities. That been the case with you?

ZUKERMAN: Well, oh, yes, indeed. And, in fact, it's well known now that people who make music are able to express themselves more easily than others who have the problem that I have.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ZUKERMAN: I do have to say that life is really good. I have a wonderful time almost each and every day. And music, for me, is a second language. And I love to, in the middle of the day, go pick up my flute and play. And the only one who doesn't like it is Lucy, my dog.

SIMON: (Laughter).

ZUKERMAN: She's not too keen on it. She kind of puts her paws up over her head and rolls her eyes.

SIMON: (Laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIMON: Flute must be - that must be the high register for your dog or something, right?

ZUKERMAN: I don't know what it is. She does not enjoy it.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ZUKERMAN: I want people to know that it's not the end of the world if you have cognitive decline. You have to find a way to find the words, but you also cannot feel devastated when your mind is in a totally blank thing. And, you know, I didn't cry. I think that's one thing that I have not done. I have not cried for myself. I've cried by myself but not for myself because I know there are so many people who are having a terrible time with this. But if I had any advice, which is, you know, pretty cocky of me to think.

SIMON: (Laughter).

ZUKERMAN: But my advice is is to live every day to the fullest. The one thing that I am not happy about is that I have read that the disease progressively destroys the self that is used to be capable of loving and the expression of loving. And I want to say it's the opposite for me because I love my family and my friends and my dogs and even the one who doesn't love me (laughter), you know, more than I ever have. And I hope I get to stay as long as I'm allowed to stay and to keep the darkness at bay.

SIMON: You know, I won't read your last poem, but let me just note your last words in that last poem in this book are, play on.

ZUKERMAN: Yes, and that's what I hope to do - just keep playing and play on.

SIMON: Eugenia Zukerman - her memoir "Like Falling Through a Cloud." Thanks to you and to Dick Novik for being with us. Been wonderful to speak with you.

ZUKERMAN: Thank you. Wonderful to talk to you, too.

NOVIK: Thank you, Scott.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.