Wednesday, September 8, 2010

My grandfather

My grandfather has Alzheimer's, and it is every bit and awful as it looks in the movies. Worse, actually. My grandfather was a smart guy. He was an engineer, had a master's from an ivy league school, and was a member of MENSA. And now he walks around a large room filled with other lost people, never really sure where he needs to go, but with an urgency that he must go now. My grandfather, who was quick to correct even the most minor mistake relating to the English language and who could speak Japanese, a fair amount of German, and even a bit of Old English, well now he can't even remember the word "sandwich."

We went to see him in his new home when we were in California a few weeks ago. My grandmother was caring for him at home until last December, when it all got to be too much. Too much watching him, cajoling him, arguing with him. Instead of taking care of her husband of 52 years, now she sits at home and cries. And he stays in his new home and wanders from corner to corner of the locked facility.

He and I were always close. When he was a father, my understanding is that he was never terribly hands-on, fulfilling the stereotype of the typical man of his time. He showed his love by going to work at a job that was stable but boring, and by taking his children on the requisite road trips. But when I was born, things were a little different. He changed my diapers. He took me on all his errands. He let me get away with things his children never would have. Even compared to the other grandchildren who followed me, I was always able to get away with more. Maybe it's because he felt protective of me due to some things that happened when I was born. Maybe it's because he and I are so alike and he knew it (I am so the nerd of the family). I don't know why exactly, but our connection was special.

When it hit me that he was indeed going to succumb to the awful reality that Alzheimer's is, I decided to write a letter telling him exactly what he meant to me and why. He framed that letter, and showed it to everyone everywhere he went. That letter lived in his office for the last few years. Now it is with him at his new home, along with a picture of him and grandmother, a few pictures from his 50th college reunion, and a picture of him, my grandmother, and me at my wedding.

Given that history, it's no surprise that everyone thought certainly I would the one face he would remember this time. But he didn't. My grandmother had me come close to him and she softly said, "Bill, remember? This is Nicole, this is your little girl." He gave me a polite but blank nod and an uncomfortable laugh, and I backed away. Those words struck me to my core. My mother is his only daughter, and they had given up the idea that he would remember her. He did remember one of his son's name, calling out "Frank!" but then, nothing. Yet there still was hope that he would remember me. There was a large group of us there that day (My grandmother, my parents, my siblings, my sister's boyfriend, my husband, one of my uncles, and three of my cousins), and everyone had tight mouths and wet eyes.

We stayed while my grandmother fed him his dinner, as she likes to do every day. The visit went on without incident. Well, aside from the confrontation from the resident bully and my uncle. It went something like this:

Bully to my grandfather: "You! Don't go there!"

My grandfather was looking out a window.

Uncle John to bully: "You better watch yourself."

Bully: "I do all the watching around here."

My uncle is not in the habit of yelling at the elderly but apparently this particular gentleman has taken a (vocal) dislike to my grandfather and nothing has been done to stop it so far. It was funny in a black humor kind of way.

I guess life goes on. But it is not easy to have to watch this happen to my grandparents, to my mom and her brothers. We were sitting with my grandmother a few days later and she asked Rob what the tattoo on his chest said. He responded, "I'm gonna live before I die."* My grandmother sucked in her breath sharply and was silent for a few minutes. I thought it was because she didn't care for tattoos but I proceeded to ask her what was wrong anyway. Her eyes watered and she simply said, "We were so young just a minute ago." I knew she got it. And I know that I get it now more than ever.

*Totally lyrics from a Social Distortion song.

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