Yesterday is a cancelled check;
Tomorrow is a promissory note;
Today is the only cash you have,
so spend it wisely.
–Ancient Chinese Secret
I don’t remember my grandfather very well (speaking maternally, as it were; my father’s father died before he and my mother ever met, and so I know him only through the stories my father and his brothers and mother have told over the years). He was, if memory serves (and as I’ve noted many times before, if it’s prior to the age of 12 or so, memory serves about as well as most of the people I worked with at Ruby Tuesdays), a mean, grouchy old man who really had little use for children.
Keep in mind that I don’t say this with any bitterness. I don’t remember him ever being really spiteful toward me or Mandy, nor did he ever (that I recall) lay a hand on either of us. He just was sort of there in my peripheral vision when we would go visit my grandmother, Merv. I do recall Saturdays watching wrestling with him, six-year-old me sitting on their blue leather recliner while he sat in his customary position at the far end of the sofa, smoking his cigarettes.
The clearest memory that I have of him is him towering above me on the stairs in their house as he showed me old coins that he had, explaing what they were and where they came from. The specifics have gone the way of Theater Appreciation 102 in my head, but what I remember the most vividly was that he was talking to me, and even smiling every now and then. I think I was about seven or eight at the time, and it confused me; grumpy old Da was being nice to me, and even at that age I knew something was amiss.
It was shortly after that that my mother sat me and Mandy down and explained Alzheimer’s to the both of us, and our adventures in the world of the mnemonically challenged began.
I always thought it was funny, at that age — the idea of a grown man wandering out of the house in his underwear, getting lost in his own neighborhood, forgetting the names of grandkids, his only child, his wife and sisters. But I started seeing more and more what it was doing to my mom, and to my grandmother, and the seriousness set in.
He eventually died from some abdominal something or another; I was thirteen, and have little to no memory of him after the stairway conversation. It seemed, strangely, like a relief for my mom and grandmother, something I wouldn’t understand for another fifteen years.
Shortly thereafter, my grandmother moved down to Birmingham from Nashville, to be closer to my mom and us (my mother is an only child). That would have been around ’87 or so; by 1990, my parents had finished building their new house with a connected apartment for her to live in. I had moved out in the summer of ’89, after high school, and again, my memory gets fuzzy regarding family stuff, but I know that it was before my divorce in ’94 that Murv, too, was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.
Whether from youth or emotional distance from my grandfather, the only effect the disease had on me in round one was watching the effect it had on others. This time around, it was much different. Murv was the one person outside of my immediate family that I had ever (or would ever, to this day) feel any sort of connection with. It was painful to watch the slow decay of her memory — even more so, I think, because I wasn’t living with her and seeing it every day. Instead, I visited weekly, and thus the progression was more noticeable.
She would ask over and over, ten or twenty times in the course of a visit, if I had talked to Jen, if I had found someone new yet, how my classes were going (I hadn’t taken classes since ’92). I never minded answering repeatedly, though, because there was still that grandmotherly concern there. It wasn’t long — maybe I mean to say that it wasn’t long enough — before she started misrecognizing me, first as my father (which was tough to spot, since we have the same name), then as my grandfather, then as one of her brothers who had passed away many years earlier (my mom had to tell me whose name she was calling me).
Her physical health got worse and worse; she was having small strokes, which were causing jumps of progression in the Alzheimers, and she developed some sort of cancer in her shoulder. Mom and Dad moved her into a nursing home, so that she could get the constant attention that she needed. I didn’t visit much; it was too hard for me, and frankly, she wasn’t my grandmother any more, not even in mild flashes of recognition.
In April of 1999, we went to Nashville for her funeral, and I finally understoof the relief that I had seen in my mom’s eyes all those years earlier. My grandmother had disappeared somewhere along the way back, becoming little more than a barely functional shell of meat along the way; she was in a better place, no matter what I believe or don’t about an afterlife. My mom had taken on the maternal apron for the her own mother, and now that extraordinary burden was off her shoulders.
I think there’s some sort of irony to be found in my memories of both of them being almost dominantly pre-Alzheimers. And that’s exactly the way I’d prefer it, honestly; maybe it’s delusional, or pathetically nostalgic, but I don’t really care. They’re my memories, and I’ll do with them as I please, knowing full well that genetics or an act of God may take them from me on a whim.
Once, long ago, I saw the sun inside the fire
But now my eyes are burned and blind
The time has come to walk the road into tomorrow
And put the memories behind
-Frames Per Second, Awakening