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.”
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.