The Alligator (and The Bone Man) | by Margaret Ward McClain

The Alligator

“Let’s go see the alligator!” my grandfather called to me, and I came running. He was already choosing a hat from the hundred crammed on a rack by the sliding glass door. He slid the door open and in a second he’d be gone and I’d better hurry up and put some shoes on and get there fast. When I caught up with him, breathless from churning my stubby legs, he was halfway down the long slope of the yard, headed for the water. The yard was a peninsula, surrounded by the brackish, green-brown water of Clearview Lake. The lake is a man-made inland body of water, far larger than a pond but navigable across its full length in about 20 minutes at the speed of a trolling motor. Ringed by live oaks, pine and brush, the lake was and is today a haven for a multitude of creatures that fly, slither, crawl and swim. King of them all was The Alligator, a big old male who lived down at the end of the lake out of sight of the house, near the dam.

We were headed for a small flat-bottomed wooden boat pulled up onto the mossy bank of the lake. In its glory days the boat was painted dark green, but the paint had chipped and flaked from the hull, exposing wood weathering and in spots as mossy as the bank. A little wider than a canoe, it had two benches, one with a live well, and a squared-off stern to accommodate a small trolling motor. I scrambled across the bow onto the second bench and held still while my grandfather slid the boat into the flat green water and stepped over the side. As we began to float sideways, parallel to the bank, I moved forward, grabbed the long oar from the bottom of the boat and pushed us off. He moved to the stern, cranked the little motor and pointed the bow up the lake towards the dam. He’d brought his rod with the spinning reel and some heels of bread, so I figured he’d let me drive for a bit while he tried for a bass and we’d feed the mallards. But first we’d see The Alligator.

Around a bend in the lake, past a small cove and next to the dam is where we’d look. As we rounded the bend, he cut the motor. I handed him the oar and peered at the bank as he paddled. “We’ve got to be quiet now, let’s see if we can see the old alligator,” he instructed. I gripped the gunwale of the boat and leaned slightly towards the bank, my heart beating a little faster with excitement. Four times out of five, we’d see nothing, but that fifth time . . . “there he is!! you see him?” I whispered as loudly as I could. My grandfather always let me spot him first. The gator looked like a huge gray log lying up on the bank, sunning himself as we glided past. I’d ask to get closer, and we’d turn and paddle by again. The massive presence on the bank fascinated me, and I’d lean close as I dared without tipping the boat. “Not too close now, we don’t want to bother him – you know, he’s more scared of you than you are of him.” I wasn’t scared of him at all. I knew my grandfather respected The Alligator. If the old beast seemed to regard us, it’d be a “we’d better turn around now.” The motor would crank back up, and we’d be gone.

It would be dusk by the time we had finished harassing the wildlife and slid the boat back up on the bank. I’d run to the house, slide the back door open and shout for my grandmother. “We saw The Alligator! We saw The Alligator!” She always acted surprised. “You did?!” When my grandfather followed me through the back door, he’d get a look and her voice would rise sharply in interrogation: “did you let that child get close to that alligator?” “Aww, heavens no, Margaret,” he’d say, and give me a conspiratorial look.

Years later, the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources decided The Alligator had outgrown his home at Clearview Lake. Rumor was that the Tucker’s dog went missing and half a dog was found. The DNR enlisted my grandfather to help find the gator and haul him out to the swamp. The mission was accomplished with a tranquilizer gun, yards of rope and duct tape. In the photograph taken before he was loaded onto a truck and carted away, The Alligator is stretched out full length on the bank in the back yard, longer than the wooden boat. His mouth is duct taped closed, and ropes tied behind his front legs extending from his grey body immobilize his massive tail. My grandfather stands balanced on The Alligator’s back.

The Bone Man

Some thirty years after The Alligator, I met the Bone Man. The Bone Man is a classically trained artist, a painter, photographer, and writer. His clapboard house stands under the crooked branches of live oaks on a plantation on the Ashepoo river. He is artist-in-residence there, taking care of the place and tending to the horses. His art in traditional forms includes meticulously drawn portraits, haunting photographic portraits and landscapes, and paintings of striking realism suspended in surrealist dreamscapes. The Bone Man lives inside his art. The house is an installation, every surface covered in artwork, photographs, collected pieces. A New Orleans funeral parasol hangs from the ceiling; walls are all paintings, bones and feathers. Each object is immaculate and carefully placed, each angle and sight line its own new and startling composition. Everything he sees is a picture.

copyright Tim McClain

copyright Tim McClain 2013

The snakeskin of the five-foot rattler on the wall is easy to spot, but less so are the delicate bones. The Bone Man’s less traditional medium is the skeleton. Part engineer, part sculptor, he is expert in cleaning, preserving, and articulating animal bones. It is a dirty, smelly, time-consuming and tedious process. And why? These aren’t dinosaur bones or hunter’s trophies. Still, on a table near his door he has the bones of a rattlesnake killed on the property The triangular white head floats above an arc of winglike ribs diminishing down a seemingly infinite chain of vertebrae that spirals into a coil and emerges, a tail crowned with dry rattles. The perfect architecture of a magnificent animal remains in a few ounces of bleached bone.

Three alligator skulls rest on a table by the window. The Bone Man picks up the largest and places it in my hands. The head itself is easily two feet long and a foot wide, intact with long jaws, heavy eye sockets and ridged poll. The bone looks porous, like it should be light, but it’s heavier than a bowling ball and awkward. For a second I struggle with it, afraid I’ll drop it. “Turn it over,” he says, “this way,” and tilts the base of the skull upwards. In the center of the back of the skull is a small cavity. “Put your thumb in there.” He brushes a finger over the cavity. “Go on, try it.” I shudder to do it. My thumb just fits, barely past the first knuckle. “That’s his brain cavity,” the Bone Man says. “This guy was twelve feet long and weighed more than a thousand pounds and his brain was smaller than your thumb.”

The Bone Man has articulated many alligators, including one for a local nature center. He also accompanies the hunters who take them. The skull in my hands, its companions, and the buckets of bony scutes on the back porch came from alligators killed on the plantation. Landowners are permitted to control alligator populations on their property and each year are issued a certain number of “tags,” or permits to kill. The Bone Man has been on many alligator hunts, but the one that produced the skull I’m holding he remembers. “That guy was was bigger than the boat. They shot it and it refused to die. They had ropes around it and it was trying to roll. I stay out of the way, but they called me over to help them get it up out of the water – they had four guys and it wasn’t going anywhere. I know more about alligator anatomy than anybody, and I was telling them where to shoot it to kill it quickly, right at a place where the skull joins the spine. They shot it with a rifle right there and it still didn’t die. After a couple of hours we finally got it tied. It was still alive when we loaded it up on the truck. It was still alive when we cleaned it. We didn’t kill that alligator – we tortured it to death. I wasn’t going to let him die for nothing.” He articulated the beautiful bones.

(Tomorrow: Margaret concludes “The Alligator.” Don’t miss it!)

The Long Road to the Last Goodbye (conclusion)

In a recent public conversation about young educated people leaving West Virginia to find their fortunes elsewhere, I heard someone say, “Maybe someday they will appreciate the security of these mountains.” The word security struck me as strange, and so I asked the speaker what she meant. “That word you used, security, why did you choose that word? Because I don’t see this place that way. Help me understand.”

She never answered me, and while I thought several times about going back to prompt her again, I let it end there. I let the question linger in the air because that is its natural place. It is a place between mountains like echoes.

This place is security.

Why do you say this is security?

Silence. Repeat the assertion. Repeat the question.

And so my heart returns to Charles Edward. I do not know very much about him at all, but in some ways I think I know enough. He was the father of 10 children. He had one devoted wife. He was a coal miner in West Virginia and he died at a young age. I imagine he gave his all to the people he loved, and that all probably meant very little of his true self left over for his own use. As a mother, in some ways I can relate to that. I imagine him drifting off at night to a hard-earned rest: Did he dream of his own boyhood, of what he thought the world would bring? Did he drift off to sleep in pleasant thoughts of life beyond the mines, or did he struggle with nightmares of never seeing light again? Though I don’t like to think of it, I worry that my great-grandfather was caught in the echoes.

This place is security.

Why do you say this is security?

Silence. Repeat the assertion. Repeat the question.

Charles Edwards’ youngest son was my grandfather. He died this year, the last of the ten. He will be buried in Fayetteville earth with many of his brothers and sisters, though I don’t know in this moment where his father lies. He probably lies in the ground in Fayetteville with his family. His bones are melding with the land by now, a strange and lovely constitution of former miner, father, husband and mineral. There is poetry in the idea that a miner returns to the earth, lends his elements to reconstituting the very place from which he took value.

As I bury my own grandfather, I think of Charles Edward. I wish I could have been there, could have seen his body laid to rest, could have cried for him on the day he went into the ground for the last time. He hasn’t been much of anyone to me most of my life because he was literally cut out of the picture. He has been a ghost. It is not for me to judge why he has had no real presence with the living until now, but it is for me to call him up, now. It is for me, his great-granddaughter, to pull back the thin muslin curtains and call his name. It is for me to call out to my silent great-grandfather in my own moment of decision. I need him to talk to me.

What do you think I should do? Your great-great-granddaughter is here now. By the way, she’s gorgeous, I wish you could see her ride Lopaz, the wooden gliding horse you used to have for your own children on the porch in Fayetteville. Remember Lopaz? I wish I could know you knew Lopaz was making this generation of children happy. Did you make this horse? Buy it with the little non-scrip you had?

But I’m losing my place. What I want to know is what you think I should do right now. My husband has a calling to Vermont. It’s far away, but it’s mountains. Really nice mountains. And the work is all about helping people find good things to do that don’t compromise the life they want. He’ll be trying to help make fathers of ten children sleep easier at night. You’d like what we are doing. I think you would like it.

What was that you asked? Do we win, does your great-great-granddaughter win? I know why you ask that question, and I forgive you. I forgive myself for wanting to say yes. I think at the end of the long goodbye, my answer to you and to myself is that she one day will not recognize the question. She will live in such a way and in such a world that she tilts her head at the idea of winners and losers. There is very little, Charles Edward, that I can give you. You are gone in most definitions of a life, and yet here I am writing about you and feeling motivated by your spirit. I give you all I can around shaping the future.

This place is security.

Why do you say this is security?

I say it is security because it does not change. I say that which does not change should be evaluated with a keen eye and unsentimental heart.

I say security is something to be challenged.

And I say letting go of this place hurts the heart, but only as the sunlight hurts one’s eyes when he walks out of the mine, and into his family’s future.

The Long Road to the Last Goodbye (part 3)

As inelegant as it is, here I must say that not all things are wrong. There are many hard and beautiful truths in a West Virginia life that other places may never know. I am reminded of the betrayals of a true love. Not much is lost when you never cared, but there is a unique pain in the infidelities of the one to whom you’ve given your heart.  West Virginia births and raises true loves. We don’t do things half-way or a little bit. We come out into this place like wires, connected, to a land of creeks and sky and hills. We hit the earth a part of it, and “mountain mama” is not just a line from a song. Whether we want to have this relationship or not, it is both a birthright and a burden.

I think again of my great-grandfather. What did Charles Edward grow up believing? I imagine he was like the rest of us. He grew up believing that that is a good place. He no doubt came into the world with a strong belief that the land around him was worth fighting for, that anyone who would disparage what West Virginia is would be easily and swiftly defeated. What he did not know, what none of us know at first, is that this place is a commodity to be traded, and that loyalty to this place is like falling in love with a hooker. That sounds terribly harsh, but I believe it is accurate.

Those in the know will tell you that despite the fantasy, no one sells their physical and spiritual self because they want to do it. They do it because the children are hungry. They do it for reasons that call out for solutions, and the way in which the terrible wants are met with resolution is not in question; at least not in the moment of decision and transaction. As a parent myself, I understand this on a fundamental level. There are some things I like to think I would never do, but I’ve held a screaming, hungry child. I know what it is to have every element of your responsibility and your future literally in your hands, and to have to make a decision about how to help. All morality and ethical consideration goes out the window, save the system you’ve inherited as a parent. That system says that the ends justify the means. Feeding and clothing and caring for your child is the only purpose you have, and the only bedrock principle of how you make decisions.

If West Virginia were a parent, would she struggle so? I wonder when I personify this place if it would trade its streams, its mountains, its communities for food for its young? And as I even ask the question, I know the answer as clear as anything I’ve never known. It is as simple as not wanting to know. Yes, she has sacrificed all of that. And like real human children do, we have learned from our mother’s example. Give in, give up, justify. Do whatever you have to do so that your children don’t go hungry. Don’t obsess or worry about the now, or even about the consequences of the now. Save the little ones, and forget yourself. Your only real purpose is to keep them alive.

Charles Edward had ten children and a wife to keep alive. Did he ever even have the time to wonder about the effects of coal mining on anyone but himself? He was a miner back in the days when men bent low and stayed low in the dark from dawn until night, chipping away at the rock walls of the mine shafts with hammers and chisels. They loaded chunks of coal into rail cars that followed them into the dark and that carried their treasure safely out into the daylight; they continued to strike the hard earth, in the dark. At one time there weren’t many jobs for a young Fayette County man that would allow him to feed ten children and a spouse. Mining coal developed a reputation for being the only work worth doing that even approached paying enough to feed a large family.

Of course, the coal industry rarely paid actual money. Miners were paid in scrip, a form of artificial money that could only be used to cover expenses at company stores. I don’t know for sure if Charles Edward was paid in scrip, but I imagine that at least part of his compensation came in this form. This kind of control over the fruits of a worker’s labor is one of the most notorious and detested parts of the coal industry legacy in West Virginia. After days of mind-numbing hacking at stone walls and hour upon hour of breathing filthy and even toxic air, a man’s paycheck still was not a moment of freedom. Your compensation was something you were privileged to hand right back to the company that kept you in dangerous conditions underground, and you were supposed to be grateful that they would take it back from you for whatever they could spare.

You were supposed to be glad that you had a job at all, and while this trite outlook always has some genuine truth to it, the sentiment behind it has not served my people well in West Virginia. The gratitude philosophy just dead ends into a stone wall. There is never been much public discourse about deserving better, and I ask silently if that is because there hasn’t been much private speech about it, either. Somewhere along the line, articulating wanting and deserving more became corrupted into being selfish and disdainful of this place. Layered decades of a mono-economy made any words against the one thing everyone believed mattered, the coal industry, into dangerous hate speech.

The Long Road to the Last Goodbye (part 2)

West Virginia has a long history of conflict. The conflicts are documented in our history books and highlight near-wars like the Battle of Blair Mountain and the textbook controversy that rocked Kanawha County in the 1970s. In these kinds of fights guns are fired; sometimes, people die; and almost always there is a gouged scar on our cultural landscape. On a recent visit to Vermont I heard myself trying to explain how things play out in West Virginia, and what came out of my mouth after a few glasses of wine was, “We are a culture of winners and losers.” My dinner guests were hooked, I could tell, when they put down their own glasses and leaned in to hear more.

I wasn’t sure there was more to say, and I didn’t expound much on my words; I think they speak for themselves. But I have rolled the wine-tinged phrase around and around in my own mind without ceasing for days now.

West Virginia is a culture of winners and losers.

It is something so obvious once I said it out loud that I hardly know where to start, and yet the looks on my dinner companions faces said it was not entirely normal or expected. I think communities that are thriving well  beyond where we are in West Virginia have either never accepted the winner/loser dynamic or have so solidly rejected it long ago that hearing it is still real in other places is like hearing that dragons exist. It’s not out of the realm of possibilities, but you are shocked nonetheless.

We don’t really resolve things in West Virginia, and accepting that reality has been a slow train coming for me. I haven’t wanted to internalize and deal with the fact that this is a place of hurts that fester untended. In an odd way I think we’ve learned, as a people, to allow our wounds to go full-tilt into permanent scars. When I look at mountain top removal, or mine deaths, or cancer rates or any number of “wound like” truths in our Appalachian landscape, I wonder. I wonder where that line is when people stop trying to get well and start trying to catalogue their scars. “We may never get well,” they say, “but we can make you look at what happened. We can try to make you look at what you did.”

The Long Road to the Last Goodbye

Following is a spontaneous first draft intro for my next creative nonficition packet submission. It will get better. But one of my favorite parts about pursuing my MFA is to just sit down and let it out.

I am leaving West Virginia. It is not the first time, but it will be the last time. I’ve gone through some cyclical departures, but this one has all the signs of a last goodbye.

This strange place is my home. I was conceived and born in Appalachia, as were many of my recent maternal and paternal ancestors and relatives. We are hardwired into the hills. We come from the rock and the soil and yes, if I am truthful we come from the coal. One of my great grandfathers was a coal miner. He fathered ten children, and yet when I see his photograph not twenty years before his death he is a young man. Handsome, tall and lean, he has a look about him that is telling; it tells of an internal age that a casual viewer cannot gauge.  For some reason I’ve never been able to articulate until now, I have refused to own him. My entire family has refused to own him. His name was Charles Edward, but I had to look up my grandfather’s obituary to confirm that. I’m not sure how I know his wife’s name by heart, but his is a thin disintegrated sheet of paper in my history files.

I can still see her photograph with no effort. In fact her son, my grandfather, prominently displayed for years her photograph in his home. In the picture she is as a vibrant young woman in a lace collared blouse and rich blue velvet gown. It was decades after I first saw this photograph that I saw the entire picture. She is smiling with the glow of love because she is standing next to her husband, Charles Edward, in the unaltered photo.

But in the altered photo my great grandfather is no more. His son, my grandfather, decided to cut him out of the picture and to remove him from a visual place in his home where children and great grandchildren might know who he was. On some level, cutting him out of the picture was who he was to my grandfather, Charles Edward’s son. My grandfather was the ninth of ten, and his father died a coal miner well before he had any real memory of his dad. Better to just cut him away. I don’t know that I would post photographs of an unknown parent myself.

But the unknown, the dead and absent, the ghosts, don’t just go away. They tolerate the neuroses of the living for a time, but they always return to claim what is theirs. This is the story of what is Charles Edward’s. I’ve come to believe that my final goodbye to West Virginia on behalf of myself and Charles Edward’s great-great-granddaughter is part of what belongs to him.

To Everything, Turn.

To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven:

A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted; a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance.  – Ecclesiastes 3

My family said goodbye this week to our patriarch.

My grandfather was nearly 100 years old, and his presence in this life was powerful. He was loving and strict, easy to laugh and just as easy to eagle-eye you into a corner if he was concerned about your direction. He fought the Nazis. He gathered wildflowers. He ran businesses and raised a family. He loved life, and life loved him right back just as hard.

So saying goodbye has been a challenge. I spent the first week after his death in a weepy haze. I know it’s perfectly natural that a person this old should pass away, and yet I just didn’t really know how to let him go. He has presided over all of the most significant moments of my life to date, and thinking about how to anchor anything without his involvement has been difficult. I just kept thinking, “He’s gone.”

Then, it happened. At a 30-plus family member dinner on Saturday night, the cousins started dancing.

These were the little ones, ranging from 3 years old up to 10.  Some of them knew my grandfather, but many were too little and lived too far away to have any memory of him. I had been agonizing over the fact that they would never really know him, that without his guidance and influence our family couldn’t go on as it had been, that this gathering would be the last of the great family gatherings because without Poppa we would not really know who we were going forward.

“Look,” my husband said nudging me, “It’s a cousin conga line!”

All of the little ones had lined up and were kicking, dancing, and laughing their way through the restaurant we had reserved for the night. I can still see Jennings’ face. My first cousin once removed, he is a live wire and known to be the child who took Poppa’s death the hardest to heart. This was his first real family loss to death, and yet here he was, leading the party.

In that moment, I found myself looking away from the past and toward the future of my family. As The Byrds’ song suggested, I turned. Instead of seeing what was lost through heartbreak, I saw all that is dancing before me into the future.

Such moments are a rare gift. When I was younger I can remember older generations losing loved ones and me wanting to scream, “They are gone! I am right here!” Now I see the pivot point.

And now I turn.

(This piece first appeared on January 22, 2013, on The Mommyhood, a blog of The Charleston Daily Mail.)

 

Lopaz | a sonnet for my grandfather

Lopaz

And then the Lamb invited me to look,

and I beheld a faithful flowing steed

with one glorious hoof atop the Book

my life faithfully kept in word and deed.

My ears perceived a gentle rising call

emitted from a distant room beyond

my sight, and all those lost to me were tall

and gathered locked in bright eyes wet and strong.

In life I rode in boughs the wooden frame

painted to color life but pulseless ran

amidst the kingdoms, rivers, stones, by name

I called them mine; yet now I rein my plan.

Gesturing to the stable my mother

stands before my sisters and my brothers.

I wrote this in honor of my grandfather, H. H. Sims. He is transitioning from this life to the next, the last of 10 children raised in Fayette County, West Virginia. Lopaz is the name they gave their rocking horse; he’s really more of a gliding horse. He has served many children through the generations!

Alzheimer’s Strikes by Laura J. Little

When I was in high school, my grandmother developed dementia.

Some people called it hardening of the arteries, some called it Alzheimer’s disease, and some called it senility. The name really did not matter; it was the devastating effects that were memorable.  We often remarked how merciful it was that Grandma did not know what was going on; it would have hurt her to know what was happening.  I was fourteen and was often asked to watch my grandmother for a short time so that my father could attend one of his many other responsibilities.

Alzheimer’s hurt our whole family, not just Grandma, and that was never more true than that one fall day when my grandmother slapped me.

I was not an abused child. When I was younger and Grandma was healthy, I would get an occasional swat across the bottom when I misbehaved or talked back. I got many more hugs, kisses, and thick slices of homemade bread with strawberry preserves than disciplinary smacks. I know that Grandma loved me. Grandma did not hit me.

Alzheimer’s did.

A chair belonging to the writer's grandmother

A chair belonging to the writer’s grandmother

It became obvious to my father that Grandma needed constant supervision. He hired a series of ladies to come and stay with her, but there were always gaps between when the “day lady” and the “night lady” came. Dad stopped by her house every day after work, but he had many other responsibilities, and someone needed to fill in for him when he had to be elsewhere. Often, I was the one who stayed an hour or so with Grandma so that Dad could bathe, eat dinner, or pay bills. I had one job: Make sure Grandma did not leave the house. How ironic it was that going home to her meant leaving the house that she and my grandfather built forty years before. Her mind was trapped in a much earlier time.The road that she traveled to get home was a rutted dirt road populated by horses and buggies and the occasional car that moved aside whenever the driver saw someone walking along the road. She did not recognize that it was seventy years later; by now the road was a major U.S. highway, well-traveled by cars and tractor-trailers that would not see her walking in the middle of the road until it was too late.

My usual strategy was to get her talking. I loved the stories she told about growing up. She talked about going to a now-demolished one-room schoolhouse, about her courting days, and about my Aunt Forrest, her lifelong best friend. She told of the horses they rode, the pigs they raised, and how the children hated Sundays because they had to dress up and go to church. They could not play the whole day long, but had to sit quietly and read. Sometimes they didn’t even read, they just had to sit. One day the quiet got to be too much for Grandma’s youngest sister, Edith,  so Edith mounted the brood sow, which of course headed promptly for a mud hole and dropped her off, ruining her Sunday-best clothes. My aunt got a well-deserved whipping, but Grandma laughed until the tears came. This is how we passed much of the time: Grandma insisting that she needed to go home, and me saying, “Oh, I’m having such a good time. Can’t you stay just a few more minutes?” On most days, she would agree and begin the next story. Using this kind of persuasion, I could usually keep her in the house until my father got there.

But one gloomy fall day, Grandma was more restless than usual. I was getting nervous, as she seemed so antsy, and dark was coming ever earlier; it was even more important to keep her off the road. She re-told a few stories, but every few minutes she insisted that she had to go home. By this time I knew that telling her that she was at home would do no good, so I asked her to stay a few minutes longer. She stood up and said,“No,I need to get home!” I jumped to try to get her to sit down, but she was too quick for me. As I held her arm, trying to keep her in the chair, she reached out and slapped my face with all her might. I was taller, but she had more than 80 years’ worth of hard work on the farm to build up her strength. There was nothing more I could do but call Dad to come and get her as she headed for the door. She was out the front door by the time he answered the call.

I had failed. This one simple task, keeping Grandma in her own house, and I had failed.

I hoped that Dad would get there before she got to the road. In the end, he did, but I cried that night. I cried for the hurt from the slap, but even more from the apparent victory of that hated disease. That night Alzheimer’s attacked me physically, yet I was powerless to strike back. The disease had hidden itself inside my wonderful grandmother, taking her body as a disguise. There was nothing I could attack; striking the disease that had beaten me would be striking my grandmother. If someone I thought I did not know tried to keep me against my will in a strange place when all I wanted to do was to go home, I would have fought, too. Since I could understand what her deteriorating mind must have reasoned, I could not be angry with her. I struck out at myself for failing.

That night I realized that my grandmother’s soul had died, to be replaced with this imposter.

That night I mourned my grandmother for the first time, but not for the last.

Laura Little holds a doctoral degree in Education and is the Director of Instructional Technology at Bridgemont Community and Technical College in Montgomery, West Virginia. She has over ten years of experience in higher education with public universities, private colleges, and the for-profit sector. She explores the common threads of these different settings on her blog, The Real Doctor Laura. This essay is the first to be a true Essays on Childhood submission covering adult reflections on a childhood marked by Alzheimer’s disease. Look for her poignant work in the Essays on Childhood project again in 2013.

Fade to Black by Jennifer Waggener

She can’t remember the last time they met, though it was only three years ago this third of July, a hot, moonless summer night, when she’d spent the final moments holding his hand, alternately speaking to him in hushed tones and singing “Let Me Call You Sweetheart” ever so softly into his ear, her cheek meeting his where it lay on the stiff hospital pillow.

She can tell you how they met, in vivid technicolor detail; about the pouring rain that day some seventy years ago when her big brother brought him to the house, a drowned rat by all appearances. But even so, she couldn’t take her eyes off of his; they way they twinkled and danced! Just one look, and before she knew it she was following him down the yellow brick road of his dreams, into happily ever after.

She can’t remember the name of the nice lady who fed her lunch yesterday and breakfast this morning; the one who cajoles her into taking “just one more bite”; the one who brings the styrofoam cup of too sweet lemonade to her lips to wash it down; the one who is a mere child herself, but inevitably crows about what a “good girl” she’s been to eat so much of the tepid, pureed gruel that passes for a meal these days.

She will ask you, though, about your babies, and even about Ms. Stinky-son, her great grandson’s not-so-favorite kindergarten teacher. Did “that woman” ever give him back his truck? she’ll ask, recalling an incident long forgotten by the parties involved, a glint in her voice as she stands ready to defend the shaggy haired five year-old with the tear stained face of a decade or more ago, standing in living color before her mind’s eye, in its own twisted version of the here and now.

She can’t remember why she doesn’t see you everyday, or, perhaps more aptly put, that she doesn’t. Where has everybody gone? Why is she in this awful god forsaken place? She hates it here, she says, without saying a word, but still, you can read the indictment on her face. She wants to go home. Can’t you take her there? Sit on the big flagstone back porch and gaze across the river, have a glass of tea and talk about remember when? The pleading that goes unsaid is enough to break a soul in two, jagged edges still piercing and pinching long after the visit is over.

She won’t remember that you’ve been here, almost as quickly as you go. Tomorrow, today will be just yesterday, those short term memories the first attacked by the cruel, unforgiving scourge that wipes the surface of her mind clean each night.

But you’ll remember.

“I have to go, Grandma. I’ll be back soon.”

Her face turns, seeking yours.

“I love you,” you say, nearly choking on the swirl of emotion you feel welling up from the depths of your suddenly fragile heart.

Her cloudy eyes find yours, and lock there in a long, present moment.

“I love you, sweetie,” she states with all the authority of the grandmother you’ve always known. “And don’t you ever forget it.”

Jennifer Waggener says, “I discovered the world of blogging in February of 2004 and have been addicted ever since. I’ve met the most amazing people through this little hobby of mine. The entire journey has proven more rewarding, more time consuming, more thought provoking, more immensely pleasurable than I ever dreamed it would.”

Fade to Black first appeared on Jennifer’s blog on June 27, 2006. 

Image creditCover art from Twelve Below Zeroby Anthony Bukoski. Painting by Gaylord Schanilec.

Memory and Loss: A New Kind of Essay

At the end of September I celebrated the Alzheimer’s Day of Action by pledging to use memory loss, dementia, and Alzheimer’s Disease to guide the 2013 Essays on Childhood project. You can read some of the ideas I had on this post, “How Esse Diem Purples.”

Within an hour of posting my musings, I had three complete essays from writers for the project.

These essays are not drafts, or ideas for essays; they arrived in my in-box as fully formed works. Each them moved me to tears, and continue to do so on every subsequent reading. At first I was concerned that I can’t use them in the Essays on Childhood project because they break a defining rule of EOC: All essays must be written about experiences before age 18. The essays I received are written about adult experiences, but with an interesting twist. The writing illuminates the unique pain an adult feels when caring for an older relative whose mental capacity is ravaged by Alzheimer’s Disease or dementia. The unnatural degree to which the adult caregiver much switch roles with a parent or grandparent is striking. I feel as if I’ve seen something intimate and private that maybe I did not have the right to see.

And yet . . .

And yet, these writers ask us to see it. They need us to see it. Their words reflect that people they love are slowly slipping away. These are parents and grandparents to whom a debt of gratitude can never be repaid, but the desire to repay it increases exponentially as the writers witness their loved ones’ suffering. A grieving process begins before death, and one senses that even death cannot close the wounds from this kind of protracted loss.

These essays are challenging because they ask us to share something we may not want to share. In the end, I believe what they really do is give us an opportunity as members of the human family to open our hearts and minds to one another. We have a chance to better understand how families everywhere are facing a complicated situation with no easy answers.

This week, my posts will feature the follow writers:

Tuesday: Fade to Black by Jennifer Waggener

Wednesday: The Brain Anchor by Valley Haggard

Thursday: Committed to Memory by Katy Brown

I hope you will read and share these stories, and perhaps consider writing your own essay. I have created a special essay category called Essays on Memory and Loss, and ideally a collection of these kinds of stories will become valuable education and advocacy tools for organizations like the Alzheimer’s Association.

Thank you!

Image credit: The Epoch Times