Guest Post by Stephanie March
Even as we sit here, the battle continues. The evil enemy keeps spreading and threatens to consume everything. The best defense system in the world cannot stop the current onslaught of devastation. I am completely helpless against this silent monster that is attacking my territory. I can no longer claim ignorance of a war that had always seemed so far away.
This time the threat is real and this time it is personal. There are no guns or tanks to be afraid of, only the name of the invisible terrorist from which there is no escape- Alzheimer’s.
The shock of seeing my Grandfather in this role as a prisoner of war has rendered me speechless. He sits before me in his favorite chair that he’s had for as far back as my memory will stretch. The large recliner now overwhelms his body that has shrunk during his captivity.
Seemingly overnight, this man that now sits before me has replaced the statuesque man that used to tower over me. The only evidence of his contagious smile can be found within the deep lines framing his now solemn face. The twinkle in his eyes is now hidden beneath a distant stare that promises to travel farther and farther away from the home in which he has lived, loved, and lost.
My Grandmother’s voice drifts into the living room from the kitchen where she is preparing a dinner that includes my Grandfather’s favorite deviled eggs. I hear her softly singing “Amazing Grace” over the banging of pans and pots. “I once was lost but now am found, was blind but now I seeee…” drifts into the room and hangs in the air like an omen.
Through it all- his memory loss, erratic mood swings, and eventual diapers - my Grandmother’s faith has not faltered.
The love and care she has provided for him throughout his illness should be commended with nothing less than a Purple Heart medal, like the one my Grandfather earned during his military career. I don’t know how she does it. As Assistant Professor of Nursing at Bradley University, Cynthia M. Steinwedel eloquently states “Family caregivers are thrust into an ever-deepening, demanding role of caring for a spouse or parent who gradually becomes increasingly distant and yet dependent, unreachable and yet intrusive, lost and yet still present”. And yet, despite it all, my Grandma faces losing the man she loves with a courage and strength that I can never begin to comprehend.
My Grandfather’s dog Pepper, bounds into the room and jumps up on Grandfather’s blanket-covered lap. As though a secret switch had been flipped, his face instantly lights up with love and amusement. I never thought I would see the day when my strict and tidy Grandmother would allow an animal in her house. But she does it for him and for how it helps him cope.
He runs his paper-like hands over her silky black and brown body. Pepper sticks her tongue out and gives him a great big canine smile. This 2-year-old loyal furry companion gives him a reason to get out of the bed every day. After sniffing the air for hints of a turkey coming out of the oven Pepper runs hurriedly back into the kitchen. My Grandfather’s face returns to its sleepy existence.
My chest aches with the desire to turn the mystery switch back on and bring him back to life. Blinking back tears, my gaze shifts out the window and onto the expansive green lawn and perfectly trimmed trees. When I was a little girl he would sit me on his knee as we rode on his tractor mower around that very yard.
After my Grandfather removed the blades for safety we would journey around the lawn like we were headed somewhere far away. My cousins and brother sat behind us in the bright red wagon that my Grandfather carefully anchored to the tractor.
Since those days long gone, one of my cousins passed away in a tragic car accident. My Grandparents were devastated by his death and could not believe that his time had come before their own. And now, my Grandfather prepares to be reunited with his Grandson.
As the afternoon sky turns shades of orange and pink, the room begins to darken. The corners of my mouth turn up as I remember coming to visit when I was a little girl. Much to my chagrin, my Grandmother would force me to eat healthy vegetables and drink endless glasses of milk. But there were these precious occasions when my Grandfather would tell her he was taking me to eat a healthy lunch at the nearby cafeteria. Instead, we would end up sharing a big greasy pizza and guzzling sodas. My Grandfather would look across the table at me and wink… it was our little secret.
I know that now he doesn’t remember those moments and so I remember them for him. I will carry them with me. The memory loss of Alzheimer’s is difficult to witness. The slow destruction of buildings that took a lifetime to build. But there are still memories being made. Small moments of laughter.
The air conditioner kicks on and he gives a little shiver. I get up and tuck his red and black wool checkered blanket around him tighter. He likes to be wrapped up like a warm burrito and telling him this makes him laugh. A good hearty laugh, his laugh. I see that familiar twinkle for a moment and it is this twinkle I will remember.
As I kiss him on the forehead I regret all the times I was too busy to visit, too self-involved to ask about his life, and too blind to the fact that he would not always be here in his favorite chair. I struggle now to block the forming picture in my mind of his empty chair beside my Grandmother and her endless stack of crossword puzzles.
He will only disappear deeper into the vast unknown of the foreign terrain. I wish I had a map to find him and bring him back.
I tiptoe out of the living room and walk outside into the cold dwindling sunshine. The wind blows lightly through the trees and swirls my long dark hair around my face. The grass needs to be cut and my Grandfather’s old tractor sits collecting dust in the garage waiting for the man I used to know and the little girl I used to be.
A warm sensation spreads over my entire body as I glance up at the evening sky. He might not always be here in his favorite chair, but I know where I can find him. He will be where the grass is always green and where there are no more battles to be fought. It is there that I will find him, riding through the clouds on a shiny new tractor with my cousin bouncing on his knee.
July 1920 - November 2003