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.