My grandmother has Alzheimer’s Disease.
I shouldn’t be surprised. For nearly two years we have all talked amongst ourselves, those of us in the younger generations, about how to coax her into seeing a doctor. We’ve pressured my grandfather, begged, pleaded, scolded.
She asks the same questions over and over. She tells the same stories within twenty minutes of one another. She asks me how my baby is and if he’s walking yet. She wants to meet him and is sad she hasn’t. He is 2. He has been walking for over a year. She has met him on three occasions.
She finally goes to see a specialist. They take pictures of her brain that show things like heat and electricity and god knows what else. They draw her blood, looking for reasons she can’t recall things. It is strange to me that they can see that in her blood. Can they also see how stubborn she is? Can they tell she likes buttermilk because it reminds her of her girlhood? Can they see her fear?
These tests show that she should be fine. But she is not fine. Other tests, the kind where she is asked questions and has to write things down—those tests she fails. Her body looks fine. Her actions say otherwise. And the doctors tell us she has the clinical symptoms of Alzheimer’s. She is put on medication for Alzheimer’s. The tests, the lab ones, they don’t always show the disease until later stages, they say. She has all the signs. She will not get better. Her memory loss cannot be arrested. There is no cure.
My father clings to hope in a way that breaks my heart all over again. Really, he says, we don’t know anything new if you think about it. We know she’s forgetful. Maybe it’s her blood pressure. I mean there’s a lot we don’t know.”
I firmly but gently remind him that we know a lot. We know her memory won’t get better. We know it’s not her blood pressure. We know she has a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s.
But the lab tests, he says.
But the medication choice, the diagnosis, the interactive tests, I say.
But you never know, he says.
Well, I suppose. Stranger things, I say. And I leave it there. He will have to come to this in his own way and time. I don’t remind him that brains look fine long after they aren’t, and that these lab tests are not 100% accurate. Facts he himself told me. I don’t remind him that in two years, Mimi has been getting nothing but worse, and much of the person we knew is already gone. She’s his mother and that makes it hard to know the things he knows.
I’ve had a bad history with my own mother. It’s a long story. To her I needed to be everything she had ever wanted or hoped to be. Except that I wasn’t, and that was the problem. Under her gaze I was someone that was, even as a preschooler, too fat, too talkative, with curly hair she would describe as a “rat’s nest” every morning in total frustration with locks that would not be tamed.
The thing about curly hair is that it becomes beautiful when you barely touch it. That’s the key. Try to comb it or brush it and it will react in anger, thwarting you at every turn. If you sprinkle some water on it and swirl it with your fingertips, it blooms.
Mimi did not know this secret intuitively, but she wanted to learn. At Mimi’s house, I sat for hours in a white wicker chair in her beautifully appointed bathroom while she lovingly coaxed the snarls out of my hair. She cooed over how beautiful my curls were and never stopped saying how she wished she had hair like that. She told me I was pretty and took me to her stylist, asking for help on caring for hair like mine. She showed me off to her girlfriends there, saying, isn’t this hair beautiful? Have you ever seen anything like it?
She would take me to get my picture taken.
She would feed me ice cream and tell me I was smart, and could do anything in life that I wanted.
She sat with me on her porch for hours in the summer while we both read books, side by side, and sipped lemonade. I talked or didn’t talk all I wanted when I was with her.
In her presence, I was seen.
Now there is a day barreling toward us through time, unstoppable through human will or effort. On that day, I will visit her and things will be different. She will not just tell the same story to me three times. She will not just be meeting my son again for the first time. This time, she will look into my eyes, as she has been doing for 31 years, and ask me if we’ve ever met. The only one who used to be able to see me will not remember having ever laid eyes on me at all. And it will take all my heart to tell her, gently, “Yes, Helen. Yes. You and I, we have been seeing one another for a very long time.”