IT

She always took off from work at Thanksgiving through New Years. She meticulously cleaned her little house from top to bottom, scrubbing the floors on her hands and knees and then waxing and buffing them with a big machine they don’t make anymore. She decorated every inch of her tiny home for Christmas –to this girl’s eyes, her home was a gingerbread house come to life. She baked cookies and more cookies. She made pies. She fixed a feast of ham, baked beans and potato salad for Christmas dinner.

And then IT came and ruined everything. IT destroyed Christmas and the other 364 days of the year. IT sneaked and slithered, entwined and choked. IT made her forget.

Now a fine layer of dust and grime coats her home. She doesn’t notice. Now the tree stays stowed under the house, completely forgotten. She doesn’t understand what a Christmas tree is. Now the stove is turned off and the fridge is bare. She needs to be reminded to eat. Now the only thing she does meticulously is pack her suitcases with worthless old cookbooks and scraps of her past –a list of the pallbearers at her grandfather’s funeral. She’s waiting for her ‘family’ to come for her.

IT stole her family without taking them anywhere. Her family fills her tiny house and surrounds her with love –love she no longer feels or recognizes. IT gleefully rips my heart in two.

Her daughter tells her, “You won’t need those suitcases when your family comes for you. Jesus will provide everything you need.”

Confusion –IT laughs at us manically –“Who is Jesus?” she asks.

My rage is fierce and all-consuming. But IT hides safely within the shell of my grandmother. I see IT dancing and laughing at me behind her eyes, but there is nothing I can do. My rage boils and bubbles, flows in hot salty tears, burning my eyes and skin. There is nothing I can do.

IT has taken over and destroyed her mind, her memories, her personality, everything that made her my beloved grandmother. IT thinks IT has won. IT laughs cruelly.

But think again, IT. You haven’t won. You haven’t managed to infiltrate my grandmother’s soul. You’ve merely imprisoned her soul. You’ve had your way with her brain, but her heart is a fortress for her soul. Her spirit hides safely there. The day will come when the Lord sets her soul free and her soul will remember everything. Her soul will recognize Jesus, will be embraced in the loving arms of our beloved mother Mary, will rejoice in Gloryland. Her soul will celebrate with her family in heaven And her family on earth.

Go ahead and gloat now, IT. We will prevail. Enjoy my suffering while you can because the day is coming when you will be as helpless as I am now.

***
God, give me the strength to endure Alzheimer’s assault on my grandmother.

The Face of Alzheimer’s

I met her on my run. There was nothing out of the ordinary about her – nothing to suggest she was anything other than an elderly neighbor out for a walk. Her clothes were clean – slacks(as grandma would say) and a knit shirt. She was wearing sparkling white Reeboks, tied securely.

I readied a smile and prepared to say good morning when she suddenly stopped right beside me and grabbed my arm to steady herself. Breathlessly she started to tell me about how she was on her way to the gas station. “They told me there was a gas station up here,” she mumbled, obviously struggling to articulate the words.

“Ok,” I said as my smile faltered. Looking at her, talking to her, feeling her hand on my arm – it was all very familiar –eerily familiar. This complete stranger could have been my own grandmother. While she didn’t look or sound like my grandma, she obviously was suffering from some form of dementia or Alzheimer’s, like my grandma. I could see the illness, like a veneer over her real face, making this stranger and grandma seem like the same person.

I wasn’t sure what to do, so I just stood there like a bump on a log (as grandma would say) as the woman walked away. Questions and thoughts raced through my mind. Should I go home and call the police? What if I was wrong and she was perfectly healthy? There was a gas station at the end of the road, although it was a bit too far for someone who was out of breath and unsteady on her feet. I’d hate to embarrass her by reporting her as wandering. There was no point rationalizing. I couldn’t convince myself she was not suffering from Alzheimer’s. How could I deny the oh-too-familiar symptoms? I couldn’t. I turned around, racing to get home and call someone.

By the time I reached my house, there was a police car pulled over on the side of the road and an officer was helping the old woman into his vehicle. I bent over, hands on my knees, breathing heavy. Relief washed over me.

Yet, I still couldn’t shake the feeling that she could have been my grandma and I watched, hoping the policeman didn’t put her in the backseat like a criminal. He did.

This incident has left me feeling unsettled. I don’t know which bothers me more -the way Alzheimer’s seems to ‘take over’ a person, erasing individuality and leaving its own distinct personality or the way I reacted, or not reacted as the case was. I sure hope that if, God forbid, my grandmother ‘escapes’ and gets lost that the person who finds her handles the situation much better than I did.

See*Photo*Write Challenge Response

Click here for this week’s See*Photo*Write Challenge at 1st Writes.

Under an Olive Tree

“I can’t stand it anymore. I wish he were dead. He just…exists; he’s not living.” An old woman dabbed at the corners of her eyes with a thread-bare handkerchief she kept wringing in her hands. “Isn’t there anything you can do for him, Doctor? To end his suffering?”

“Mrs. Papadakis, he’s not suffering…”

“Not suffering? He doesn’t know who he is anymore! How is that ‘not suffering’?”

“What I mean is…”

“I know what you mean, Doctor.” Mrs. Papadakis clutched her purse tightly and glanced quickly at the window where the man who had once been her husband sat staring blankly ahead. He didn’t even know she was in the room! Refusing to cry anymore, she stiffened her spine and turned for the door. “I might not be back to visit for a while. It’s too hard seeing him like this.” With those words, a wife left her husband.

Under an olive tree in Greece, Nicholas Papadakis remained oblivious.

What Alzheimer’s Has Taught Me About Writing

  • Words are precious. I take them for granted. Being able to form coherent sentences and draw vivid images with words is an amazing gift.
  • Writing is not just mental or physical; it’s emotional too.
  • Writing is like therapy. Running is like therapy. This is good. I need a lot of therapy and I’m on a budget.
  • Writing reveals hope.
  • All my vivid memories may cease to be one day.
  • Every word I write now is valuable. If I’m never published again, if I never make the NY Times Bestseller List, it doesn’t matter. My words are keys to my past — a past I don’t want to ever forget.
  • Keeping a journal is more than writing practice — it’s a living, breathing connection to my past, to my heart and soul.

Then there’s the flip side.

What Writing has Taught Me about Alzheimer’s:

  • Despite the ravages of the disease, there are still moments of joy to be found.
  • Alzheimer’s allows us to live in the moment and let go of material possessions.
  • Alzheimer’s cannot destroy our faith in the Lord. If Alzheimer’s leaves us in the dark, “even the darkness will not be dark to you; the night will shine like the day, for darkness is as light to you” (Psalm 139:12 NIV).
  • In God, there is always hope. Thank you, God!

Landslide

I feel it all falling down around me. The protective barrier I’ve managed to build up against my grandmother’s Alzheimer’s is slipping. She can still talk. She can still give hugs and she can still say “I love you” even if she doesn’t exactly know who she’s saying it to. She remembers that she should remember us. She doesn’t know us, except she knows that we aren’t strangers. She’s still happy seeing a new baby or being hugged by a child. I’ve learned to accept this and to cherish it. But writing this article on care-giving has opened my eyes that I am going to lose even these small comforts and blessings. Knowing that she’s going to slip further and further away from me but be right within my reach is devastating.

This isn’t Alice in Wonderland

Imagine waking up on a Sunday morning, brushing your teeth, making a pot of coffee and warming up some frozen pancakes for breakfast. After getting dressed, you walk to your garage, only to discover you forgot your keys. You go back to the house but the hook where your keys dangled for 50 some years is empty. Figuring you might have left them in the car, you go back to the garage, only there is a strange car parked in your driveway.

 

A man rolls down his window and says, “Hey! You ready to go?”

 

You don’t recognize the man, but he’s looking at you expectantly and inside you feel like you should go with him, but you don’t know why. You get in and try to fasten your seatbelt, but can’t seem to do it. The man is talking to you, but his words aren’t making sense and fear creeps up on you as you realize the dangerous situation you are in.

 

Before you decide to jump out of a moving car, he pulls in to the church parking lot. Relieved, you get out and walk up the steps. Inside the church a sea of unfamiliar faces turn to stare at you.  Where did all these new people come from? You sit in the back pew because the congregation intimidates you. The piano begins to play and everyone rises to sing an opening hymn. You open the old, navy-blue hymnal, but the words and music have been replaced with doodles and gibberish. Everyone around you is singing, and while you recognize the tune, you’ve forgotten the words so you simply hum along. You feel eyes staring at you, judging you.

 

The pastor begins his sermon, but for the life of you, his words don’t make any sense. He is speaking English, but the words sound strange. You vaguely remember a childhood story about a girl who falls down a hole into a mystifying world. Perhaps that is what has happened to you.

 

After service, it’s your job to collect and count the money. It’s been your job for 30 years. You know the routine. After collecting the money, you start to count it, but you continuously lose your place and have to start over. Tears of frustration burn your eyes. Glancing to your right, you see a group of women and they are staring at you and whispering. You feel naked and exposed. All you want is to get home. Stuffing the money in the bank bag and tucking it under your arm, you run out of the church.

 

Once outside you look for your car, but can’t find it. Frazzled and confused, you just start walking in the direction you think is home. It seems like you’ve been walking forever. You hate to admit it, but you might be lost. How can you be lost? You’ve lived in the same place for 57 years! Someone must be playing a trick on you! Those strangers at the church! Why are they out to get you?

 

Coming toward you is a woman. Should you turn and run or ask for help? Asking for help is out of the question. She’ll think your stupid or worse, crazy! You’re frozen with uncertainty.

 

“Mom! Mom!” The woman calls. You look behind you, but you are alone. She must be talking to you; this woman is your daughter. The fear that has gripped your heart transforms into irritation.

 

“What are you doing? Why did you just walk out of church like that?”

 

“Those old biddies were talking about me behind my back!” You spit out in anger. The woman that is your daughter rolls her eyes and takes your arm, leading you like a puppy.

 

Finally you are home! But there’s a large man in the middle of your kitchen and he’s glaring at you. “Do you know you put a glass coffee pot on the stove and left it on? Do you want to burn the house down?” He scolds you.

 

You say nothing. You don’t know him. He has no right to lecture you in your own house, but he’s a man, a much larger man than you. You stay quiet. He leaves. The woman that is supposed to be your daughter looks at you with a mix of pity and sadness. “I’ll be back over to make you lunch. There’s a pot of coffee already made.”

 

She leaves and you slump down in your chair, finally letting your tears fall. You are not a helpless child! You are not an ignorant fool! But that’s how you are treated. You decide that going back to church would be a mistake. All the comfort and security you used to find under its steeple has disappeared; instead you feel fear and anxiety.

 

Pulling yourself together, you change out of your Sunday best. Heading into your kitchen, you decide not to wait on the woman who claims to be your daughter to make you lunch. You are perfectly capable of making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. You open the breadbox and see a plate stacked with pancakes. Now who would go and put pancakes in the breadbox you wonder.

 

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Dedicated to my Grandmother who suffers from Alzheimer’s disease. Writing about the illness, its effect on her and its effect on me has helped me to cope with the anger and anguish I feel.

Lord, I pray that in the midst of her confusion and hopelessness, when she is crying in frustration, you will gather my grandma in your arms and hold her. You are the only one who is capable of overcoming this devastating disease. Amen.