Dementia’s Mottled Shadows: Alice Munro’s “The Bear Came Over the Mountain”

Dementia hovers over America’s 54 million seniors (most recent 2019 figures) like a slightly noxious cloud that either already affects some 7 million of them or has the remaining 47 million (and their families) making nervous jokes about constantly misplacing their keys. While dementia comes in various forms and severities (some 70% from Alzheimer’s disease), its common core is heartbreak.

These emotional impacts are borne not only by those who fall to it, but in many ways, even more heavily by family members and other intimates who must watch their beloved not merely decline and die, but in the often long dying, turn into someone almost unknowable, alien to who they had been.

Canadian writer and Nobel Literature Prize winner Alice Munro, now 90 herself, explored some of this heartbreak and the adaptations caregiving spouses try to make in coping with it in her widely hailed short story, “The Bear Came Over the Mountain,” which debuted in “The New Yorker” magazine in 1999.

This is bad news for everyone, because the level of care on this floor is largely custodial, and any medical or more severe psychological decline necessitates transfer to another unit.

Given Munro’s reputation and the all-too-relevant content for America’s rapidly aging population and its burgeoning dementia toll, the magazine posted it online in 2013 in a generous, easily readable format available here.

It’s a deeply affecting story of flawed human beings facing uncommon trials, some unique to them and the intricacies of the marriages they maintain as one partner declines, others as universal as the suffering that undergirds human life at every stage, in multiple ways.

And just to be clear, no actual bears appear in the story.

The title is a take-off on a simple children’s song, a repetitive ditty one can find on You Tube, “The Bear Went Over the Mountain.”

Munro simply changes the verb, reversing the bear’s direction to have it coming our way.

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Munro’s entire career stands as a refutation of the idea that short stories are the weak cousin of the novel, and that readers can’t immerse deeply and be just as haunted by a tale and its characters via a short as they can a full-length novel. She’s been proving it since publishing her first of fourteen original collections in 1968, six of which have been made into feature films.

“The Bear Came Over the Mountain” is one of those, enacted on screen in 2006 with the title, “Away From Her.”

The adaptations that two “surviving” spouses whose lives cross paths in the facility where their beloveds reside forms the core of this extraordinary tale. Munro’s great gift is in plumbing the depths and nuances of human character, motivation, deceit and grace in the few strokes available to a short story writer, placing the reader in close but not all-seeing proximity to the mottled shadows that underlie so much of human behavior.

Munro gives us under 300 words in a few brief paragraphs to describe the meeting and courtship of Grant and Fiona in their youthful college days, the carefree and sorority-shunning Fiona one day, almost as an aside, proposing to him while the ocean waves crash around their feet by asking, “Do you think it would be fun if we got married?”

He thinks she is joking, but she isn’t, and since he considers her as possessing “the spark of life,” he says yes.

In the next few lines, we are transported, without warning, 50 years on (it rather feels it’s happened like that for me, too, come to think of it), and we stay there through the rest of the tale.

Fiona, coherent enough but obviously in decline, is donning her ski jacket as she departs with Grant to her care facility, stopping momentarily to fuss over the scuff marks her shoes are making on the kitchen floor that she will never see again.

The facility insists on loved ones staying away for a month while residents adjust to their new lives, not made desperate with longing in the early days and insisting their spouses or children take them home.

When Grant strolls in bearing flowers after the requisite month, Fiona is friendly (that spark of life!) but hardly effusive, and it soon becomes apparent she doesn’t really know who he is.

Meanwhile, Grant can’t help but note her cleaving closely to another male resident, Aubrey, whom she is assisting in his intense focus on a bridge game. (The also demented Aubrey considers her his good luck charm, and he has difficulty holding the cards that she takes care of for him.)

No emotional drama ensues as Grant takes this development in stride, though he soon reduces his daily visits to semi-weekly with zero note of concern or care from Fiona. We do learn, though, that he has been a philandering husband and university professor, crossing boundaries with many of his adult women students who had returned to take college classes in those halcyon days of women’s liberation.

Is it possible that the severing of Fiona’s cognition represents a passive rebuke to all she has had to endure from Grant’s betrayals, the blood vessels leading to her brain occluded by unspoken rage? Munro doesn’t go there, at least explicitly, but she doesn’t have to.

What we do know is that if Fiona’s innocent, even hapless falling for Aubrey in their respective enfeebled states is a strange version of karma for Grant, who is he to complain?

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But there’s another complication. (No complications, no story…) Aubrey, it turns out, is only an occasional short-timer whose wife deposits him there for a few weeks at a time, when her budget-preserving 24/7 caregiving hits a wall of exhaustion.

When she takes Aubrey home (with Fiona imploring Grant as she helps pack up a weeping Aubrey’s things, “Do you by any chance have any influence around here? I’ve seen you talking to them . . .”),  Fiona stops eating and loses interest in most everything else as she literally begins to waste away.

This is bad news for everyone, because the level of care on this floor is largely custodial, and any medical or more severe psychological decline necessitates transfer to another unit. Which begets Grant’s following exchange with the facility supervisor:

The supervisor called him in to her office. She said that Fiona’s weight was going down even with the supplement.

“The thing is, I’m sure you know, we don’t do any prolonged bed care on the first floor. We do it temporarily if someone isn’t feeling well, but if they get too weak to move around and be responsible we have to consider upstairs.”

He said he didn’t think that Fiona had been in bed that often.

“No. But if she can’t keep up her strength she will be. Right now she’s borderline.”

Grant said that he had thought the second floor was for people whose minds were disturbed.

“That, too,” she said.

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This foreboding exchange sets Grant’s own mind in motion, and he hatches a plan to deal with it by contacting Aubrey’s wife, Marian, and arranging a meeting.

Munro masterfully sets the scene here of a world-weary wife just trying to get through each day of a fate she of course never imagined, or by necessity tamped down as we all must if we are to get on with the lives we lead on the way to them being no more.

The psychological maneuverings as Grant and Marian take each other’s measure, Grant assessing the possibilities of a request he will make of Marian and Marian at first wondering why he has even asked for this meeting and then contending with what transpires, shows Munro as the acute student of human behavior that every great storywriter is.

The scene comes near the end of a compulsive half-hour or so read that you will not want to put down, its conclusion leaving much to further imaginings on our part about where these haphazardly intersecting lives, suddenly brought into improbably intimate contact, go from there.

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Deep appreciation to the photographers! Unless otherwise stated, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing.

Elizabeth Haslam, whose photos (except for the books) grace the rotating banner at top of the page and include the calla lily in the text  https://www.flickr.com/photos/lizhaslam/

Library books photo by Larry Rose, all rights reserved, contact: larry@rosefoto.com

Trees by Andrew Hidas  https://www.flickr.com/photos/andrewhidas/

Bear by Sebastian Kurpiel https://unsplash.com/@sebbykurps

Seniors on bench by Sven Mieke, Erlangen, Germany  https://unsplash.com/@sxoxm

4 comments to Dementia’s Mottled Shadows: Alice Munro’s “The Bear Came Over the Mountain”

  • Robert Spencer  says:

    I was extremely lucky that neither of parents who lived into their nineties suffered from this tragic disease. My uncle, a professor of nuclear biology at Berkeley, spent the last two years of his life slipping into a state where he didn’t recognize his five children. “Living Still”, a film on Alzheimer’s starring Martin Landau and Ellen Burstyn, while not as popular as Nicholas Sparks’ “The Notebook”, is worth a watch.

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      Thanks, Robert. Given the scope of this problem, the staggering cost of care and the staggering sums to be made with an effective treatment/preventative, I suspect Big Pharma will be coming up with something in the not too distant future, hopefully in time to help people we care about, such as…ourselves!

  • joan voight  says:

    As my elderly Mom dances with dementia while I am caring for her, I can attest that it takes surprising twists and turns. This story about the wife of a philandering man finding another love interest in her dementia is the kind of irony that pops up. Some compare the condition that we used to call senility to poetry, in which the devolving mind goes from one image and idea to another, with no rhyme or reason, but with a certain lyrical “logic”. And the repetition! It’s a hard road, and please be kind to anyone who is a caregiver for such a mind. Thanks for sharing this story Andrew.

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      I’m glad you noted that “lyrical logic” and the kind of non-linear poetic hopscotching a demented mind might experience, Joan. Just ran across a poem yesterday that gets at something similar, having to do with distorted vision, and hope to explore it here soon. Meanwhile, thanks for tuning in here amidst all the caregiving responsibilities.

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