It’s a terrible, miserable, evil disease. It’s ruthless. Alzheimer’s, more than anything else on this Earth — despicable acts of terror, senseless killings — makes me question God’s existence.
I’ve lost loved ones suddenly. I’ve watched cancer break them down over months and years. Sometimes I had the chance to say my goodbyes, but even when I couldn’t, there was some inherent comfort in the memories we shared, and the knowledge — or hope — that they realized the impact they had on shaping the person I am today.
It was painful to watch as breast cancer ravaged my Grandma Annie, but even in her last days, spent bedridden and hardly able to speak, she could listen as read from a letter I wrote her, remember our car rides listening to Led Zeppelin and know that I loved her. I thought about writing a letter for my Grandma Suzy, Gigi, until the last time I saw her. It still may have been therapeutic for me, but its meaning would have been lost on her.
She died this afternoon, but Alzheimer’s all but took her from us months ago. I feel an ashamed, stomach-churning sense of relief.
Having two parents who worked full-time meant Gigi was my and my sister Caroline’s deputy mom. She picked us up from grade school regularly and took us out to see movies. When I was in second grade and my mom broke her back, the shuttling duties went from regularly to daily. When my mom and dad both thought the other was picking me up after soccer practice, it was Gigi’s car turning into the parking lot at St. Agatha’s that I glimpsed from the top of jungle gym.
When I got sick from drinking too much eggnog Christmas Eve — no, not that kind of sick, I was 6, maybe 7 years old — it was Gigi who checked in on me throughout my self-imposed quarantine at our family’s traditional Christmas Day brunch, which she hosted every year until she was forced to move into an assisted-living community.
Caroline and I learned to swim in the pool at her condo and when we had to get out of the water for the rest period, she was there with towels and Capri Suns. She always had Capri Suns in her refrigerator — it was the only place I ever saw them once I got into high school. Then there was her blue-and-white bowl of M&Ms that Caroline and I would not-so-covertly try to raid every visit. Our mom was much more stealthy.
Gigi always wanted to live by the water, even if just a pool. She talked fondly about the old family lake house in Waverly, Ohio. Some time in the mid-to-late-90s she moved into her dream home: a second-floor condo built on a hillside, with a deck where she could sit and peer over the tree tops at an old quarry that had been filled in to make a lake. We would walk down to the beach and she’d watch Caroline and I swim from the dock and act amazed when we brought back exotic clams we’d discovered sifting through the sand under water.
She was supposed to live the rest of her life in her dream home. Alzheimer’s took that away from her, too.
Gigi loved puzzles — crossword and jigsaw. Caroline and I were always eager to help, though I don’t know that we ever provided much of it, each time we stopped by. The jigsaw puzzles were enormous — thousands of pieces. Sometimes the picture on the box wasn’t even the actual puzzle design. We’d visit one week and she’d have edges all in place. The next visit it would have filled in a little. By the third our fourth she was finished. She’d let it sit for a few days so everyone could see it and then on to the next.
In her last years, the puzzle pieces began reducing in number and growing bigger in size. This Christmas my uncle gave her a children’s puzzle — maybe 25 pieces. I don’t know if she ever poured the pieces out of the box, let alone put it together. I’d like to think she did.
I could hardly bring myself to visit Gigi over the past year. I didn’t want to see what Alzheimer’s had done to her. I didn’t want to see her struggle to recognize me, or worse, not even. I didn’t want to see her frustration in only knowing that the man greeting was part of her life, but not who or why he was.
This woman, who gave up smoking and drinking to make sure she would be there for her grandchildren — and she was — couldn’t remember our names. She had six children of her own and raised her niece and nephew when her sister died as well, but the disease had little pity for any of them either. My family joked when she would introduce my aunts and uncles, her children, to nurses as “Tim” or “Not Tim” and “Mary” or “Not Mary.”
What else could we do but try to make light of it?
The last time I saw her was Christmas day. My family and I should have been driving to her condo for brunch. We should have been calling her from the front gate so she could buzz us in. We should have found her in her kitchen cooking her famous egg strata.
But instead we drove to First Community Village and needed a key card to get into the dementia wing. They call it “Roxbury Cottages.” We found her in her wheel chair, alone in the kitchen-area.
“It’s Bart, Grandma.”
I hugged her and as I pulled away, she smiled, revealing the top row of her teeth was gone, and put her hands on my face. She was searching, searching for a memory — any memory — to put that name she had just heard to the face she was touching. I don’t think she found it. But she knew the memories were in there somewhere, or at least they had been there, so she should be happy.
We wheeled her to her room, helped her onto the couch and gave her presents — a bracelet, bird suet and a feeder for it. My sister helped her put the bracelet on. I volunteered to go out the the car and get the pole to hang the the bird feeder from. I couldn’t stay in that room.
I drove the pole into the ground outside her window then knocked on it and waved into the room. Gigi was startled. She looked out at me confused. I hung the feeder and peered back inside to look for a reaction. Nothing. I went back inside and sat down to talk with her (read: smile and nod). She held my hand the whole time, squeezing occasionally. She was still searching. Later she started crying because something triggered the memory of her parents’ death decades ago. We tried to cheer her up.
“It’s Christmas! This is a happy day!”
I’m not sure she knew why she should be happy on Christmas, but she did her best to be. Either way, we knew it was time to go. I told her I loved her and gave her a hug and a kiss. She kissed me on the head maybe a dozen times. I want to think she found a memory. I know she wanted to more than anything. As we drove away, I took comfort in thinking when the weather warmed up, she’d be able to sit and watch the birds outside her window.
I spoke with my mom on the phone a few weeks ago and found out Gigi had been moved to the second floor of “Roxbury Cottages.” My mom had to bring the bird feeder back to our house. The birds would have been fighting for that suet on a day like today.