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.
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.