I know I am a little late… Alzheimer’s Awareness month was in June. However, I thought it important to share my experience with this disease, and how it affected me and my family. Some of you might recognize a portion of this essay from my Grandfather’s eulogy. This is the essay I pulled it from, which I wrote before he passed away, in its entirety.
My grandfather is synonymous with the smells of blackboard chalk and coffee, with the immortal green sweater he never takes off and his raspy, weathered voice. His hands are gnarled by arthritis and sometimes when he laughs his smile glints gold. He is a scholar, a professor, an astronomer, a jokester, and a guardian of all he takes under his wing. He is my friend, my inspiration. He is also a sufferer of Alzheimer’s’ disease.
When I was little, I saw my grandfather as a gateway to the stars. With a room full of telescopes, model trains, and intricate maps of the solar system, he would engage my imagination with stories of the constellations and the quiet click of train tracks being put together. I can remember begging him to let me into his office just so I could sit near his desk on a rug that was covered in flaming stars and wispy galaxies, tracing my fingers across the woven strands of light with wonder.
As I grew older, I spent many warm summer days attempting to learn how to read ancient Babylonian tablets, with my grandfather as my guide. As one of seven people in the world who could read the aged texts, he was an expert, and I was an eager disciple. The tales he told of the young scribes who had made the tablets enchanted me. While the content of these texts was not in my interest: countless calculations and notations of stars’ positions and various eclipses, I was hooked. One afternoon, we ended our lesson gazing at an interactive map of the skies the Babylonians would have seen. We sat in silence, gazing at virtual celestial bodies and enjoying each others’ company. After a while, my grandfather turned to me with a smile.
“I think that when we die we all get stars,” he said warmly, “and I’ll bet ours will be really bright.”
In recent years, my grandfather has drifted farther and farther away from the world that has grounded him for so long. Now the intelligent professor who introduced me to Babylonian life and the bounties of the universe can hardly remember where he is, who I am. Sometimes I still see glimpses of the man he once was, but Alzheimer’s drains his knowledge day by day. It takes a lot of effort for him to talk about string theory and calculus, the things he loves. I would like to think that maybe when he asks what the date is for the twentieth time in a day, his mind is far away, in some distant universe. Perhaps in his thoughts he is engraving the things he forgets in the wet clay of a tablet, making sure his information is accurate before it is set in stone.
Nonetheless, although Alzheimer’s has clouded my grandfather’s sharp mind, he is still the same kind, supportive man I have known all my life. He may not always remember what state he is in, but I can always count on him to recall his love for me and the rest of my family. And while our days of tablet translation may be over, I continue learning from him every day, and for that I am extremely grateful.
It is because of my grandfather that I count myself as an oracle of the information and stories he can’t recall passing on to me. I go to school each day in hopes of filling myself with new perspectives, people, languages, and ideas to whisper about with my grandfather at birthday parties or Sunday dinners. I know first hand how easily time and disease can envelop valuable knowledge and life experiences, so I strive to treasure each moment I have while I can. I have also become an advocate for community service and interactions with the elderly, volunteering at local nursing homes in the memory care ward as often as I can. My grandfather is lucky to have a family that supports him through his disease, but others aren’t as fortunate. There are people across the community who need just as much kindness, understanding, and validation as my grandfather, and his struggles have inspired me to try to offer my companionship to others with Alzheimer’s as well.
As for the rest of my family, my grandma seamlessly went from wife and companion to guardian and nurse. She is the very definition of true love and commitment and she is an inspiration to all who know her. When my grandpa sits in his big comfy chair in their living room and asks her for the 10th time in a row when they can go home, she gently explains “we are home.” Never raising her voice in frustration–not even once. When the smartest man I know asks his wife why it’s snowing in the kitchen or why there are sparrows flying inside, Grandma lovingly kneels down next to him and suggests that maybe it’s just dust or that she’s sure the birds are simply taking a rest and will leave soon. When my grandma’s children suggest that maybe their dad needs a facility to help with his nutrition or bed sores he’s developed because his legs don’t remember how to work, my grandma keeps him close at home because she knows that though that would help his body, it would be devastating for his mind…his soul.
My parents, aunts, and uncles have all stepped up in a way I’m sure they never thought they would have to. They offer advice, lend listening ears, make meals, and drive my grandparents to countless doctor’s visits, all without revealing the sadness I’m sure lurks deep within. My sisters have taken it upon themselves to become much like court jesters, lightening even the most difficult situations with silly jokes and bringing a smile to my grandfather’s face no matter what. Everyone who knows my grandfather has become stronger, fortifying themselves against the disease that very well could have torn them apart. As a family, we have become much closer, and have realized the importance of being grateful for what we have. And there is a lot to be grateful for. My grandfather might forget a family dinner, but it is up to us not to, so that we can continue strengthening the familial bond that my grandfather built so many years ago. We have all realized that we are the people who carry on my grandfather’s legacy, so we live in a way that will make him proud, staying true to the values he has taught us, both with and without his disease.
Alzheimer’s is a cruel, prolonged disease which takes one of man’s greatest treasures: his memories. It is unable to be treated directly like cancer or heart disease and for many people, this can make things seem hopeless. However, despite the fact that my grandfather suffers from Alzheimer’s, I have not stopped looking forward. There are still days where he remembers how he met my grandmother, or which street he lived on as a child in Ohio, and it is those days that I cherish. Despite everything, my grandfather is still my grandfather. Even the clearest skies get cloudy sometimes. The same goes for my grandfather’s brilliant mind. My grandfather’s star is already shining brightly, and no disease can dim its ethereal glow.