Sarah R. Callender


In General on February 21, 2012 at 7:42 am

I know there are many cruel diseases–the particularly terrible brain tumor that took the life of my beautiful friend’s husband just this weekend; the particularly cruel cancer that took the life of our pastor’s three-year-old son; the particularly aggressive case of Parkinson’s that will eventually take the life of my dear friend’s father.

But I believe that Alzheimer’s, my grandmother’s cross to bear, is right up there with the baddest of the bad.

The disease is a fascinating study of the way our memories work. I find it amazing, for example, that I have trouble remembering what I had for dinner last night, yet somehow, just this past Valentine’s Day, I was able to pull out a memory from Valentine’s Day, 1977: one adorable classmate gave me a heart-shaped box of chocolates (the chocolate drops with tiny white balls sprinkled on top); another adorable fellow gave me a stuffed monkey. Goodness, 1978 was a good year. I think I peaked in 1978.

Why do we remember the smallest slices of our past? How are certain facts and details and smells locked in our brains, while other things, memories that seem equally important (or equally asinine) evaporate?

My family has watched this happen with my grandmother’s memory. For quite some time, my grandmother did not remember she had been divorced for 40 years. That she had four children. That she no longer lived in Pasadena. But, if you asked her to do a cheer she created in 1938 as captain of the cheerleading squad at Beaumont High School, she’d launch into it without hesitation. Go it, Purple! Go it, Purple! 

She could recall the details of some stationery I made her in 1979 and the words to every song Sinatra ever did, but she didn’t remember one of my favorite memories of her: how each Christmas, she donned real deer antlers, strapped to her head with a huge red velvet bow, and drove up from Pasadena to the Bay Area in record time, often having flirted her way out of a speeding ticket. When she pulled into our driveway, we’d see her antlers sticking out through the sunroof of her Acura. It isn’t easy, she would explain, to drive with antlers.

She still, thank goodness, knows how to flirt. When my mother has made almost daily visits to the Memory Care wing of my grandmother’s assisted living home, she has found my grandmother holding hands with the gentleman beside her. This is no surprise. My grandmother has always been a delicious flirt, batting eyelashes at Husbandio, and, in the years after she and my grandfather divorced, saying a polite and gracious “no thank you” to at least three marriage proposals.

She is, still, elegant and beautiful. She still exudes the kind of warmth that draws men to propose, that makes people feel grateful to be her friend, her daughter, her granddaughter.

Until recently, she could also still remember Hollywood, the town that beckoned, cajoled, and finally pulled her from Beaumont, Texas.

I have a photo of my grandmother, age 24, posed in a director’s chair, her elegant dancer’s legs crossed, her pencil skirt and pumps classic and classy, with Humphrey Bogart smoking a cigarette in the director’s chair beside her. Her lovely mouth is lipsticked and open in a laugh as she flirts, innocently, with this icon. I have another photograph of my grandmother in the cast of a movie with Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland.

Alzheimer’s had been kind enough to let her keep those memories. Until recently.

In his New York Times article, “Finding Joy in Alzheimer’s” Robert Leleux makes the case that with Alzheimer’s, that pains and wrongs of the past are softened, even forgotten.

He writes, “[M]y grandmother showed me that we are more than the sum of our memories. She taught me the vital importance of forgetting; and that sometimes it’s only our commitment to remembering that prevents us from accepting the love and peace that surrounds us.”

OK, maybe.

I, like Mr. Leleux, have tried to find the good in Alzheimer’s, as a way of making myself feel better about the life my beautiful grandmother is currently living. It’s hard to find much in the way of silver linings, yet I do agree with Mr. Leluex, that people with Alzheimer’s should not be seen as people who have “lost themselves . . . or even, as members of ‘the living dead.’”

The case can be made that without our memory and our memories, we are just a piece of driftwood, bobbing and aimless on the surface of the ocean. That without our memory, we have no tether. Without a tether, we have no identity.

But one look, even now, at my grandmother, and I know that’s not true. She is no piece of driftwood.

At almost 90 years old, she is still beautiful: rich brown eyes, hardly a gray hair, just plumper around the middle, with soft wrinkles covering her face, throat and hands. She still exudes warmth. It’s her warmth and grace and beauty that explains why a man can be found holding her hand in the common room.

During my last visit, a year and a half ago, she did not know who I was. Her signature red lipstick was smeared across her face and blouse. She could simply chit-chat about the birds outside her window, how nice sunshine felt on her shoulders, how she wished she could remember where she parked her car. Apparently, she needed to do some grocery shopping.

Even so, I realized that, as Mr. Leleux says, “what is gone in her is not missing.”

Yes, that’s 100% True.

In my grandmother’s presence, I can feel all that she still holds inside her: there is a young single woman who flirts with Humphrey Bogart. There is a mother who joyfully claims that having her four children was the single best thing she ever did. There is a grandmother who, at Christmastime, wears antlers strapped to her head with a velvet ribbon as she drives north on I-5. And there is a young girl, seventeen years old, smiling under the warmth of an East Texas sun, calling Go it Purple! Go it Purple!, her fist pumping the air.

It’s all still there, locked up maybe, but still undeniably present.

  1. Dear Sarah, I read this lovely tribute to your grandmother before I went to eat my lunch. I didn’t know exactly what to say then, and I still don’t, other than to say it’s haunted me since. It left a dull ache in my chest, the way only beautiful writing can. Thank you for sharing your gift. Virtual hugs to you, my friend.

    • Thanks, Vaughn. The cool thing about my grandmother, (AKA Jammies) is that she’d never want me or anyone feeling sorry for her. Still, it’s hard not to . . . hard not to be a bit angry too. Thank you for your very kind words. (And I owe you an agent update AND well wishes on your search!)

  2. Sarah, This is the first time I’ve replied–this post really got to me. Tears streaming down.
    Maybe because I met your grandmother when your mom and I were in college and remembering how lovely she was then and knowing how your mom has been so wonderful in dealing with your grandmother now. Thank you for a beautifully written tribute.

    • Oh thank you, dear Sandy! This means so much . . . yes, you can attest to the greatness of my mom’s mom. Thank you so much for reading and for commenting. My mom’s such an amazing role model, as you know! Love to you all. xo!

  3. Sarah,

    I so wish I could soothe the hurt. If I were only next door, I’d walk on over with a smile and a hug… and perhaps even some pie to comfort. I feel the heartbreak. I know it well.

    My grandmother passed away at 94, in the spring of 2010. Twenty years after her dearly beloved husband. I can only imagine what it must be like to live so long, saying goodbye to so many loves. We cared for her, in her home, for the last five years of her life. They were some of the darkest, and glorious days of our lives. Even through the worst of it, our tightly knit family grew stronger.

    Dementia stole her memories, occasionally her sense of humor, and tragically, even her sense of self. She was often confused, angry and depressed.

    But, her illness in these later years of her life, also gave US something wonderful. It gave us perspective and the opportunity to heal old hurts. It gave us the time to say goodbye to more than just our mother, grandmother, great-grandmother. It gave us a new understanding of LOVE. We never knew we needed it. But we did.

    I am a true believer…
    “When God closes a door, somewhere He opens a window.”

    Sarah, you are a Fine, Fine tribute to your Jammies! Beautiful spirit. Beautiful human being. This is Life, in its most difficult journey. Void of sadness, would mean void of great love. Feel the sun on your face. The wind in your hair. The love in your heart. And remember to breathe. That part is kind of important.

    Love, Scarlett

  4. Sarah, just today I have posted a blog entry about my father, and how hard it is to say the long goodbye to someone with Alzheimers.
    You have a lovely story there, and the fact that you remember those lovely things about your gradmother is testament to the effect she has had on you. Like wise, I have nothing but respect, admiration and love for my own father who is now at that stage where his memory is a fleeting thing. Thank goodness he still remembers us, his fie children!
    Don’t let the changes influence what you think of your grandmother. ever forget those wonderful memories of her.


  5. Wow, Sarah… this is truly a beautiful tribute. And even though you framed this entire post in the context of your grandma losing her memory through Alzheimer’s, as I read through your words, all I kept thinking was how she could never be driftwood or lost because YOU remember the parts of her past that she has forgotten. You (and her other loved ones) are her tether. And tether is spelled L-O-V-E. Your love for her shines through your words. Thank you for a thought-provoking post. Like others have said, this one will stick with me.

  6. Sarah,
    What a beautiful essay. I wanted to say that I understand that feeling, mourning the loss of someone who is still physically present, because – for a different disease – I do understand. But what you point out, so elegantly, is the importance of recognizing that person’s spirit, which is still alive. No matter what. And, boy. what a wonderful reminder.

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