She wrote a book of poetry, and I treasured my autographed copy like a cache of paper diamonds. The poem about me is on page eleven, and there is an ink sketch of a little girl at the top of the page that looks exactly like me. My sister is lucky. There are two poems about her, and on one page is a drawing of little girl sitting in a big armchair and eating her hair, which was her habit in real life. I felt bad about my younger brother’s poem. His was added after the books had already been bound, and his sketch looked nothing like him. The page was taped inside the cover like a Xerox-copied afterthought.
I wrote my own book of poetry too, complete with illustrations, and I showed it to her one evening after my father’s birthday dinner. I crawled up on the couch and handed it to her, watching the blue veins in her hands roll around under her skin like swollen earthworms after a summer storm. I chewed on the collar of my tee shirt, flicking my feet back and forth, while she turned the pages of my life’s work. I held my breath, waiting for her jaw to drop open… and for her arms to wrap around me… and for showers of praise to wash over me like strawberry flavored rain.
When she told me, “It’s childish. True poetry shouldn’t rhyme,” I was neither offended nor insulted. I was eight years old. I assumed she was right.
She also played the piano. A glossy black Steinway sat in front of her bay window, the centerpiece of a room lavishly decorated with oriental rugs and delicate Venetian ashtrays. She was a tiny woman with a giant laugh, and happiest when an audience gathered around the room to listen to her play.
I started taking piano lessons in the third grade, and she bought me an upright of my own so I could practice every day. I quit after one long and painful year, and it was no secret that she thought she had wasted an enormous amount of money on me.
She would often repeat that story, and follow it with an uncomfortable silence and a disapproving stare. I remember catching my parents’ sidelong, apologetic glances… ones that tried to reassure me that she didn’t really mean it, while simultaneously begging me not to respond.
She had her favorites too. Obviously, I wasn’t one of them.
She also had anxiety. And she routinely settled her nerves with a martini, just one, or so she said, although she really couldn’t be sure.
And did she eat? Of course she ate. She had a half of a hot dog for lunch. And a martini. She thinks. She really can’t remember.
My older brother went away to college when I ten. I overheard my parents discussing his need for a car, but they wondered how to afford it. I went to my grandmother and suggested she buy one for him. She seemed to have plenty of money, and I thought she might like to help. I was tragically and unforgivably wrong.
Sadly, these are the only memories of my grandmother that flicker like old home movies in the corner of my mind. Her unfiltered, uninhibited, and self-centered comments are the only ones that have stuck.
She deteriorated quickly after the death of my grandfather, which only escalated her emotional dependency and made it difficult to comfort her. My family dismissed her cognitive and functional decline as a nebulous condition lodged somewhere between senility and grief.
She would call frequently, confused about appointments or needing reassurance about her finances. She continued to drive, and to drink her martinis, sometimes in tandem.
It all got much easier once they found Eileen, an expressionless companion who could listen patiently to repetitive bragging and never arch an eyebrow. Eileen was the yin to my grandmother’s yang, and their unlikely friendship eased much of the physical and emotional burden of her care.
One day, my grandmother fell and broke her hip, developed a touch of pneumonia, and died unceremoniously in the hospital at the age of 89. Although my heart broke for my father’s loss, I never shed a tear.
They donated her piano to the church. They sold the antique Victorian furniture with the ivory brocade upholstery and gold wood trim, and gave away the parlor lamps and marble-topped end tables. My mother brought home the silver tea set and Wedgewood china, and placed a tower of blown glass bowls, in mesmerizing hues of amber and green, behind the Sears catalog in the back of the kitchen cabinet.
I don’t know what ever became of Eileen.
I transitioned into adulthood with my grandmother’s wedding ring on my right hand and her book of poetry on the top shelf.
I became an occupational therapist. Ten years into my career, I found my niche. I drilled deep into the research. I committed myself to helping a neglected segment of the population maintain their independence. I discovered a passion with a purpose. And finally, in a reflective moment of insight, I had an epiphany as subtle as dropping a brick on my toe.
My grandmother probably had Alzheimer’s disease.
I traced the arc of her life, the productive and happy years at the top of bell curve. I studied her decline: the personality changes, the self-medication, the memory loss.
I remember how, toward the end, she let Eileen carry her identity around like thin sweater, like something she might need to throw on but just didn’t feel like wearing. She didn’t care if she knew who she was anymore, as long as Eileen knew.
Once I diagnosed her, I was able to forgive the cold shoulders and stiff hugs that characterized our relationship. I remember the obligatory Sunday afternoon visits to her home and wished that I could take back every eye roll, deep sigh, and general teenagery transgression that disrespected her in any way.
Alzheimer’s disease is an ugly term, a label that predicts a progressive unraveling of productive life. The diagnosis brings feelings of fear and hopelessness, and many people, both the victims and the caregivers, would just rather not know what the future holds.
But a diagnosis provides separation from the ugliness. When there exists a neurodegenerative disease, there is no room for personal judgment. I had a dysfunctional relationship with a plaque-ridden brain, and the diagnosis brought a dramatic shift in my perception.
I was empowered by this knowledge. I felt like a forensic archeologist digging for clues of who she should have been. I examined her life through a broader lens and found a deep admiration for all she had accomplished. I pulled out her book of poetry and read it cover to cover. She was an amazing talent.
I can now take the linear path that links our generations and fold it on itself, creating a parallel comparison of two very similar lives. I can see the commonalities that may have bridged us together, as natural as fallen trees over winding creeks. At the very least, our mutual interest in creative expression and habitual over-sharing would probably have made us the best of friends.
It is ironic that a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s could restore a woman’s dignity.
But at least now I now have grandmother I can love.*Happy Valentine’s Day, Gran Marie.