Book Review: Neil Heinen says ‘Winter Stars’ is ‘a book for all of us’

It has 'small details and large truths,' says the former editorial director of WISC-TV and Madison Magazine.

In writer, producer, director and former broadcast journalist Dave Iverson’s acclaimed documentary “Capturing Grace,” one of the people with Parkinson’s Disease in the film says, “When the music starts, there are no patients. There are only dancers.” When one opens the pages of Iverson’s wonderful, moving and subtly provocative new book, Winter Stars, an eldery mother, an aging son, and life’s final journey, there are no mere readers. Instead there are caregivers and those to whom care is given. There are mothers and sons. There are indeed only patients, and those who will be patients. In other words, all of us. Winter Stars is a book for all of us.

Winter Stars is the story of Iverson’s extraordinary mother Adelaide, a force of nature unforgettable to everyone who met her, who died in 2017 at the age of 105. It is also the story of Iverson, a then-59-year-old, award-winning journalist whose accomplished career included 20 years at Wisconsin Public Broadcasting, nine of those years as anchor and co-host of the influential weekly WeekEnd news program on Wisconsin Public Television, who, having moved back to the West Coast in 2001, moved into his Menlo Park childhood home a year later to care for his mother. It is a story of making such decisions in the context of one’s own health challenges; in Iverson’s case, Parkinson’s Disease. It is a story of caregiving and caregivers, the importance of which, and whom, are literally life-saving. And it is a story of life’s end, that singular yet universal truth for which we are rarely ready despite our best intentions. It’s a lot to pack into a 222-page book. It is a read as compelling, thought-provoking, emotional and rewarding as it is a testament to Iverson’s skills as a writer and a storyteller.

Winter Stars is a book of small details and large truths. The thread weaving together Adelaide’s love of tests, the fun she had taking an early IQ test, and the origin of that test at her beloved Stanford University (the Stanford-Binet Intelligence Scales), is a delightful detail. Caring for an aging parent, health care and immigration policies in America in the 21st century, and the journey of the spirit at life’s end are truths Iverson invites, no, challenges us to ponder. Iverson’s deployment of excerpts from his journals is wonderfully effective at bringing immediacy and context to the many surprises that accompanied the years of Iverson’s caring for Adelaide, including the difficult decision to turn her care over to the caregivers who shine the brightest among the book’s winter stars.

Along the way we get descriptions of Iverson’s childhood, the influence of Parkinson’s Disease on the Iverson family and his life to this day, his reunion with and eventual marriage (when the reader least expects it,) to his childhood sweetheart, Lynn, and the gift of family. But through it all is the fundamental question: What does it mean to be a caregiver? Iverson likens it to being a jazz musician, “Always adapting, tuned to every call, and nimble in each response.” One must see how someone is changing, says Iverson, “and then be willing to shift and improvise as necessary rather than stay committed to whatever strategy you’d recently adopted — like maybe yesterday.”

There are many other lessons and insights, all gracefully arrived at and generously explained. We all think we can manage, Iverson says. Until we can’t. For a long time, Iverson loved living with and taking care of Adelaide. It was deeply fulfilling and manageable. Until it wasn’t. And with that realization came others that ultimately define “Winter Stars.” Love and sorrow are intertwined. Moments are to be treasured because they do not last. And most importantly that Iverson had what he says was, in a “deep, but not unfathomable way,” the life-changing realization that he “had been unconsciously drawn to doing precisely what I needed to do in life.” What a remarkable realization.

Iverson is a graceful writer who is honest, self-aware and self-deprecating (not traits that came easily, we learn,) as well as funny, warm and affectionate. Most of us will see ourselves in “Winter Stars.” By learning about Iverson and Adelaide, many of us will learn something about ourselves. What a gift. Like Adelaide’s life, “Winter Stars” is a joy.

RELATED: Read Doug Moe’s column: “Former Madison journalist Dave Iverson is back with a moving memoir of caring for his mom”

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