I was twelve or so when I first realized that there was something wrong with my grandma. I'd gone to town with her to help her load groceries into the car. We were on our way into town, and somebody whipped out onto the road Grandma was on, and cut us off. Grandma laid on the brakes, and laid on the horn, then rolled down the window and stuck her arm out to the shoulder, making gestures I couldn't see from where I was sitting (but I had my suspicions), and using words I didn't think she knew.
That was the start of it.
My grandma had Alzheimer's. She spent the next twenty years in decline. By the time I was in high school, she was paranoid, threatening violence on all of the adults (but my sister and I were exempt), and forgetting things. My grandma, who read almost as much as I did, slowly quit reading as she gradually lost the ability. My grandma, who loved music and played complex pieces on both piano and organ by ear because she never learned to read music, lost her ability to play...although, that was one of the last things to go.
By the end, she was unable to speak, unable to eat, and unable to move herself.
And through all of that, my mother and aunts kept her home.
I will admit that I quit visiting. It hurt too much. The grandma I knew and loved had been gone for a long time, but her husk still sat there, confusion in her eyes, and unable to understand what was going on around her, recognize any of her daughters, or remember why we cared that she didn't remember us.
When I was small, Grandma would spend one day a week doing laundry. In the utility room, there was a wood cook stove, and in the winter, she'd fire it up, and make bread while she was doing laundry. I'd come in, half frozen from reading outside because Mom had booted me out to go play, and the room off the garage would be so warm and toasty...and Grandma would see how frozen I was and would get a small pan, put milk in it, put it on top of the stove, and make cocoa from scratch. The secret to it was a dab of butter--real butter--dropped in after the milk was hot, but before she added the cocoa powder and sugar. And she'd slice off some of that fresh, hot bread, and put butter and cinnamon sugar on it, and we'd eat that with the homemade cocoa, while the dryer was humming, between loads of ironing.
This is the woman that was taken from me, long before she actually died.
For a while, she remembered what she used to be capable of. For a while, she was terrified...and bitter. But there came a time when even that was gone.
My husband never met my grandma. Not really. By the time he came into the picture, my grandma was losing the ability to speak. She wasn't the person who'd grown a full acre of garden and canned a bedroom-sized pantry full of vegetables and fruit every year. She wasn't the person who played concertos by ear, wasn't the person who baked bread and cookies, and made the best roasts and chicken and dumplings. By the time my husband came into the picture, my grandmother was a woman who was beginning to forget what she'd lost.
My son never met her at all--she died two weeks after he came home from the hospital, two weeks before the doctor had said I could take him places.
It's not like he could have really met her, anyway. Not like she'd have understood that the baby she would have been looking at was her great grandson.
By the time she passed, it was almost a relief. Closure. I had grieved her loss for almost ten years before she was finally, truly gone. Because the grandmother I'd known as a child had been gone for a long time before her body gave up.
She's been gone for almost six years, now. She died the Friday after Thanksgiving in 2008.
I really hate Alzheimer's. Were it not for that, I'd have had my grandmother, who I loved dearly, in my life for a full ten years longer than I did.
Because Alzheimer's had taken her from herself--and taken her from the rest of us--long before it took her life..
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