In November, I visited Gram C. at her nursing home. Although I stopped by as often as possible, it was always hard to visit. Each patient/resident in a different stage of the disease. The most well on, walking in circles, mumbling indefinitely. The rest, sitting at tables spread throughout the dining hall. Silent, they stared incoherently at a diminutive TV blasting Fox News.
As I sat with Grandma, a much older woman, suffering full on dementia, made her rounds past our table.
She mouthed words, but it was as if she was speaking in tongues.
Gibberish to us, yet in her head, it was an eloquent language expressing exactly what she wanted. Her arm bled from having scraped her thin, chicken skin. Moaning, she reached across the table and swiped Gram C’s brownie.
Gram C. let her have it: she was always much more interested in others well-being anyways.
My Grandmother had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s four years ago. I’d always associated it with soldiers, on some giant ship in the Pacific, eating out of arcane aluminum bowls. As they stabbed at their food, the utensils scraped heavily on the contours. Loosening the aluminum, they gobbled down the hard metals.
After partially tuning in to a medical report, I was certain aluminum blocked brain transmitters. Metallic things just sitting in your skull. Flashy like a tin can. Reflecting emotions. Reflecting your reflex. The brain stops moving forward, dumping you in a cyclic state of emotional ups and downs.
During the report I’d caught word of the over consumption of caffeine. Medical studies where patients were given a load–in excess of 300 milligrams–and their blurred memory, miraculously, became just a tad bit more clear.
I went home and sucked down coffee.
Four cups a day, at least.
Silently and subconsciously hoping the disease wasn’t hereditary.
In her single bedroom, my aunt had furnished one wall with photos of each family member. Tokens of remembrance. Small firecrackers, that when lit, could spark a memory for Gram C.. She didn’t remember most of us. Me included. Though once we started to talk, the fog of things past would lift.
‘I don’t know them,’ she’d say, pointing to the framed photo of my wife and me.
‘That’s me and Ariel,’ Gram.
‘You and Allah?’ She asked. Who’s Allah?’
She called me ‘The Artist.’ Though I never understood her grounds for the moniker? I work in cahoots with a machine shop. They create. I sell it.
She, however, was much more the artist. With the knack for telling stories. Good ones. Epic anecdotes of a life initiated in hard times.
In that case, she had the brush. Her synaptic landscapes conjured for me through her distant memory and painted through our conversation.
She had the one gift that Alzheimer’s sufferers are blessed with–to recollect the very distant past.
And although she often stuttered, she painted well.
Some things, even in this state of hers, as clear as day.
‘I’m going to jot down some of your stories, Gram. Sound good?’
On her bed lay a copy of Prevention Magazine. On the cover, in bold type, ‘˜50 things nurses won’t tell you.’
Gram picked it up, thumbed a couple of pages and then threw it to the edge of her bed.
‘I don’t want to know,’ she said, and laughed, nervously. As if her reality, the clear definition of what she suffered was outlined in those pages. The truth inside. On page four. As if it were there to hurt her.
‘I guess you can,’ she responded, finally getting around to answering my question.
‘But it’s nothing to write about.’
She paused. And after collecting her thoughts:
‘But, you should write it, I’ll probably forget it.’
Again, she picked up her copy of Prevention.
Reading another sub-title she blurted out ‘Swimming With Sharks! That’s not a good idea.’
And she pelted the book back to her feet.
Her thoughts like a typewriter. It was as if her brain hit the return key, sending her thought process back to the beginning of the line.
With Alzheimer’s, instead of starting fresh, you start over. Again and again.
In the dining room, an hour’s old pot of coffee lay steaming in a corner. The liquid, black ink, stewing and watering itself down with a heavy dose of caffeine, swirling in its midst. I grabbed a styrofoam cup and poured a swig. The acid felt good going down. And I took pleasure in the taste, even if it were a placebo.
Having a seat at Gram’s table, we were joined by another woman. Her conversation was loud, boastful, and oddly coherent.
She introduced herself: ‘I’m Virginia, and I’m from Virginia. And you? Who are you?’
Without a second to answer, her persistence dove in:
‘Lucille, who is this man?’ She asked Gram.
Gram C’s memory lapsed. She thought hard as her lips twisted in puzzlement. When there was any delay in association, it took some time for her senses to return.
‘He’s my friend,’ she said, ‘He’s just visiting this evening.’
Virginia grabbed Gram’s arm. Pulling her out of her chair, Virginia led Gram no more than five feet away. Protecting her naivety, she warned Gram, announcing my intentions to the room:
‘I don’t trust that man. He’s not your boyfriend, you know.’
Gram looked over at me. Deep in those tangled fibers was an unconditional love.
I was familiar to her.
She pulled her arm away from Virginia, and walked over to say goodbye.
At ninety-two she recalled memories far beyond. The Dust Bowl. The Depression. The Second World War.
She told vivid stories of growing up in rural Illinois.
Her life started on a farm.
A family dominated by a matriarch, her mother. The girls worked hard. With no electricity. No running water. An outhouse. A well.
Lives self-contained. Lives sustained by the fruits of their garden.
She often talked about her mother in the present.
‘Mother works so hard,’ she said. Her mother having been gone for decades.
And through hard labor, Gram C. became resilient.
A dual knee replacement in the early nineties.
Two years ago, a broken neck.
And finally, just weeks ago, a stroke.
Laying in bed, comatose, her Being, beating death.
With life support she would have treaded on: In a dream world, no less.
Remembering unto herself and repeating the amazing life she lived.
A film reel. Playing her most beloved movies.
And the occasional reward of romance.
**In memory of Lucille M. Coplon.
May 22nd, 1920–August 7th, 2012.