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'Falling Through a Cloud' with Eugenia Zukerman

Nov 21, 2019

Eugenia Zukerman, a world-renowned flutist, is the author of Like Falling Through a Cloud, her poetic collection of her thoughts after being diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease three years ago.
Credit Jeff Spevak/WXXI News

Eugenia Zukerman is brilliant. A world-renowned flutist. A novelist and essayist. A television journalist, as the classical music correspondent with "CBS Sunday Morning" for many years. Yet she failed the simplest of tests:

Name every animal she can think of that starts with the letter "h."

"It made me realize that I wasn't on top of my form," she says.

"It is not an easy test, I came away from it feeling that, yes, I do have a problem."

The problem? Alzheimer's disease.

"It's a death sentence, that's what it is, and everyone has a death sentence," she says. "And I could also step off a curb and die faster than I might. I just think that I am not someone that can dwell on it. I just can't."

The solution? Create something positive. As in, write a book.

Zukerman was at the Monroe Community Hospital on Monday to discuss that new book. "Like Falling Through a Cloud" is Zukerman's poetic collection of her thoughts after being diagnosed three years ago.

The 75-year-old Zukerman has played with orchestras across the world, and was the artistic director of the Bravo! Vail Valley Music Festival. But now she forgets things. Words. During our discussion, she couldn't remember the word for recipe. But she is finding ways to cope.

"I would lie in bed and worry," she says. "But then I found myself lying in bed, and just keeping my mind as empty as I could. And I thought of it, my head, as a coconut, an empty coconut. And if I lay there long enough, the liquid would drip into the coconut, and that would be my brain, and it would wake me up."

It was the words that were dripping into her brain. She returns to "CBS Sunday Morning" on Dec. 8 to use those words to talk about her new book.

When she first began experiencing memory loss, Zukerman wasn't concerned. As we age, everyone forgets where they left their car keys, right? But she worries about when the morning comes and she picks up her flute, but can't remember what she is supposed to do with it.

Her two daughters began pushing Zukerman to get checked out. She underwent a magnetic resonance imaging exam, where the patient lies flat and is slid into a tube, allowing radio waves to create a map of the body's tissues. 

"I have to say, I probably am one of the very few people who really liked the MRI," Zukerman says. "I absolutely adored going into that crypt and hearing this noise that was not a noise. It's something, unless you have experienced it, you don't know what it is. And for it, it took me somewhere else, I don't know. I could have stayed in there for a week and nothing would have happened."

But the story became clear after not being able to come up with enough horses and hamsters and hedgehogs. And then on top of that, the MRI scan. And Zukerman's family history. Her mother had seven sisters. Only one did not come down with Alzheimer's. 

"I think, way back then, they knew that it was mostly a women's disease," Zukerman says.

In fact, two-thirds of the people who have been diagnosed with Alzheimer's are women. And Zukerman has been down this road of self-exploration before. In the mid-'90s, she was diagnosed with … what was that again?

"Eosinophilic pneumonitis," says her husband, Dick Novik, sitting by her side.

Yes, "eosinophilic pneumonitis," Zukerman says with a laugh. "I used to know it like that, I could dance to it." 

It's an accumulation of white blood cells in the lungs, leading to difficulty in breathing, and an inability to speak clearly. A drug treatment cleared that up, and Zukerman teamed up with her sister, a doctor, to write the ponderously titled "Coping with Prednisone (and Other Cortisone-Related Medicines): It May Work Miracles But How Do You Handle the Side Effects."

Zukerman has played Debussy's "Syrinx" virtually every day since she was 10 years old, as kind of a warmup exercise. It's only four minutes long; she figures she's played it 20,000 times.

And that was the piece she was playing a little more than three years ago when she stopped, forgetting what comes next. On Monday at the Monroe Community Hospital, she performed it all of the way through, without a problem. With the score in front of her, just in case. She recalled for the Alzheimer's Association group how she reacted when forgetting "Syrinx," such a vital piece of her music vocabulary: "I'm lost and totally frightened, because I don't just play the piece, I feel it."

But when she had the answer, Alzheimer's, "I was never afraid, I have no idea why," she says. "I kind of found it funny. I didn't walk around laughing about it, but I found it interesting, and somehow the writing that I was doing helped me process whatever it was that was going on."

There is no cure for Alzheimer's, just a better road to the end. 

"It's enormously helpful to make music, to learn a language, to play games, to be as active as you can, to create things," Zukerman says. "I have found myself trying to create words. I have been writing a lot of things I haven't shown people, just because I know now how important it is to try and keep what's left of my brain as active as I can, keep kick-starting it."

She's forgetting words, but making up new ones? What are they?

"I can't tell you, some of them are naughty," Zukerman says with a laugh.

OK, so while we await the new risqué novel by Eugenia Zukerman, "Nothing would take the place of music," she says. "I would be devastated without being able to make music. But writing is a great activity, and in some ways, writing 'Like Falling Through a Cloud,' for me, that makes it feel airborne. It makes me feel that I am floating through a cloud."

Jeff Spevak is WXXI's Arts & Life editor and reporter. He can be reached at jspevak@wxxi.org.