Eugenia Zukerman is an internationally acclaimed flutist. (“I really fell in love with it. It became my friend. It became my constant companion,” she said of the flute.) And, if she looks familiar, it may just be because she spent more than 20 years bringing “Sunday Morning” viewers scores of stories about music and the arts, interviewing such artists as Placido Domingo, Mikhail Baryshnikov and Paul McCartney.
“I wanted to be a person who could bring them into that world,” Zukerman said, “let people know how gorgeous the music is.”
And she didn’t shy away from raising sensitive issues, with artists like singer-songwriter Judy Collins, who,, she asked, “You worked hard, and you drank hard?”
“I drank hard, I partied hard,” Collins said. “I have been able to stay away from a drink a day [at] a time for 20 years now.”
Correspondent Rita Braver asked Zukerman, “Do you remember that exchange with her?”
“I certainly do, because she was a close friend,” She replied. “She’s somebody who was very open and talked about difficulties in her life very openly.”
And today, it’s Zukerman who’s speaking out about the difficulties in her own life. “I think I was in denial, and the denial was at that time helpful. What happens if I can’t play the flute? What will happen to me?”
What was happening was that she was experiencing the early signs of Alzheimer’s disease. It was her daughters, Arianna and Natalia, who started the search for a diagnosis.
“It wasn’t just that she forgot,” said Arianna. “It had been like she’d never heard the story before. And things like that were concerning.”
“I just said, ‘Mom, is there something going on?'” said Natalia. “‘It could be anything. Why don’t we go figure it out?’ And she actually just was relieved.”
And two years ago, when Zukerman actually got the diagnosis confirming that her memory really is fading, she did not despair: “I went home with Natalia. We were laughing on the subway as we always were, and I sat down at my desk and just looked at the wall for a while. And then, I don’t know why, I picked up a piece of paper and a pen and I started writing.”
Writing what would become a new book of poems describing her experiences with Alzheimer’s, “Like Falling Through a Cloud: A Lyrical Memoir of Coping With Forgetfulness, Confusion, and a Dreaded Diagnosis” (East End Press).
What’s that word?
It’s so absurd.
It’s a place where I need to go today
but I can’t find my address book
no matter where I look
Please don’t let this be my nasty fate,
to forget appointments and what they’re for.
Zukerman’s husband of nine years, Dick Novik, says her memory comes and goes. When she forgets a word, he will supply it. “It’s a funny new role for me,” he said.
Case in point: Zukerman played one of her favorite pieces for Braver by heart, but then, when asked who the composer was, she responded, “The composer was … just a second …”
She looked over to her husband, who replied, “Debussy.”
And when she recently appeared as guest of honor at the Alzheimer’s Association Gala in New York, she spoke to the audience: “I am in awe of your generosity and your help in making this horrible, difficult … ”
“Disease,” said Novik.
“That’s my husband,” she said. “Yes, I have trouble saying ‘disease.'”
Natalia Zukerman told Braver, “She’s been nervous to present at some of these Alzheimer’s Association benefits and stuff: ‘What if I forget what I’m doing?’ I’m like, ‘That’s pretty much why you’re there!'”
And as Eugenia Zukerman recently celebrated her 75th birthday surrounded by family and friends, she has kept her sense of humor, and her dignity.
Braver said, “It does seem like you still take joy in so many things?”
“Oh, there’s so much to take joy in,” Zukerman said. “Here I am in this beautiful wooded place, and the animals that I love, and the people in this area are fantastic. I’m lucky. I feel very lucky.”
READ AN EXCERPT:
For more info:
Story produced by Mary Raffalli.