2014 College Scholarship Winners
The Alzheimer's Foundation of America proudly congratulates:
Grand-Prize Winner: Laura McCarter, 17, Newark, Del.
First Runner-Up: Morgan Olson, 18, Schenectady, N.Y.
Second Runner-Up: Hannah Chute, 18, Marion, Iowa
Emily Bonasia, 18, Coral Springs, Fla.
Jasmine Huynh, 17, Bakersfield, Calif.
Lauren Marshall, 18, Coventry, Conn.
Laurel Nalezny, 18, Naperville, Ill.
Lily Obeda, 17, Minneapolis, Minn.
Micah Rubart, 18, Woodinville, Wash.
Makayla Urbauer, 18, Lincoln, Neb.
"How about a hard candy for each of you?" My granddad's brown eyes are staring at the wall as he mutters this phrase while guiltily shoving every butterscotch candy into his already stuffed shirt pocket. Every now and then he takes a break to look around and make sure nobody is watching. If he catches me watching his petty act he'll slyly set down the candy dish and put a mask of innocence on. That is, until he forgets why he stopped grabbing candies five minutes later and continues again on his never-ending task. I lean back into my grandparents' large, overworn couch and remember the times he used to say this phrase and mean it.
My hands were covered in sticky apple juice and a huge grin was spread across my face. Granddad was standing next to me holding a small, round crab apple that I had just picked off the ground next to their apple tree. My sisters were next to us at the top of the long driveway cheering my granddad on. With extreme expertise, he leaned forward and pelted the apple down the hill towards the end of the driveway. My sisters and I squealed and chased after the rolling apple, waiting to see where it would come to stop on the side of the smooth pavement. It was a sort of contest to see who could roll their apple the farthest. As the sun was setting my granddad gathered all of us around and exclaimed, "How about we head inside and each of you girls can get a hard candy?"
"Would you like a hard candy?" I flash back into reality to see my granddad coming towards my grandmom with a half-eaten unwrapped caramel candy in his hand. "No thank you," my grandmom turns and answers. She turns and looks at me, and we share a smile. For the past few years as Alzheimer's has grown into a part of her daily life my reverence of her never-failing strength has grown. Just by witnessing her calm and dignified attitude towards this unfortunate event has taught me so much. Instead of making every day seem like a struggle, she finds the strength to care for my granddad the same as she has since the day they met. Not only am I in awe at the power of her love, I am also proud to know that her Southern strength runs in my blood. She is not one to give up without a fight or dismiss a problem to someone else, and through this experience I have learned that this trait is a gift I was given. I have an immense amount of respect towards how my grandmom has dealt with this situation, and I know that she will continue to make the rest of my family and me proud during these hard times.
The sun was shining through the grove of trees. Granddad and I were walking along one of the many paths through the forest in their backyard. "This one's a poplar. See the leaves? It's nice and straight. Good for wood." I tried to soak up every bit of knowledge I could about the woods in their backyard. As we reached their house after a long looping trail, I ran inside, excited to share my new information on different trees with my family. My grandfather followed after me and grabbed up the candy dish. "Some hard candies for my three favorite granddaughters?" he asked us with a glow in his eyes.
"A hard candy for John?" my granddad asks himself. He's not even standing at the candy dish anymore; he's busy inspecting the wood grains of the front door. "I think you have some candies in your pocket Granddad," I tell him with a grin. He reaches back into his overstuffed pocket and his eyes light up as he pulls out a handful of his favorite butterscotch candies. He thanks me with a smile sweeter than all of the butterscotch candies in the world. While experiencing my granddad being overcome with Alzheimer's disease, I have learned a lot about myself. It has taken a lot of patience and perseverance to keep up with this change, but I have surprised myself by taking it in stride and finding the strength to get through it. I have learned that staying calm and keeping a positive outlook on any situation is the best way to go. Getting angry about something you can't change won't do anything except make you more frustrated. In coping with my granddad's illness, I have learned to stay patient and strong.
It was winter and every tree in my grandparents' backyard had a blanket of frosty snow clinging to each branch. My granddad was walking down the sloped hill behind their house; my sisters and I were following, stepping in each of the footprints that he made in the snow and giggling. We made it to the bottom of the hill and turned to face the ice-covered pond awaiting us. With slightly numb fingers we awaited our chance to go—we knew the drill! We watched as granddad walked out into the center of the pond, jumped up and down a few times, and then shouted, "All clear! The ice is safe." My sisters and I slid and wobbled our way around the pond, having the time of our lives, until suddenly my bundled-up self took a fall. At the young age of six, falling on the ice was one of the biggest disasters ever. Tears ran down my face, and through my blurred eyesight I could see my granddad coming over. After helping me up, he declared, "How about we go inside. Do you know what might make you feel better? One of those hard candies."
The setting sun appears through the window. I look over and see my sleeping granddad with a pile of hard candy wrappers sitting next to him on his couch. In the past couple of years, I have picked up on so much information about my granddad's disease. My granddad is still the same person; he only needs a little more guidance to remember everyday things. In my mind I compare it to people walking through a forest as the sky gets dark: They are still in the same situation and have the same ethics, they just need a flashlight to help find their path. In my mind that is what my family members and I are doing; we're flashlights guiding my granddad through everyday tasks. I have made it a point to help guide my granddad in any way that I can. Whether secretly baking vegetables into his cookies so that he gets enough vitamins in his diet, helping him find a place to settle down in new environments, or just letting him know everything is okay, I am there for him always. The fact that a phrase such as, "Would you like a hard candy?" would be one to get stuck in my granddad's vocabulary as the rest of it disappears means a lot to me. This means that my granddad is such a genuinely giving person because he must have said that candy-offering phrase enough for it to get ingrained in his mind. I am honored to have been raised in the presence of such a kind, giving granddad, and he still means as much to me as he did when I was a child.
Coping with Alzheimer's has impacted my life in that I have become a "flashlight" guiding my granddad in his life. Through coping with his disease, I have learned many things. I have learned that my grandmom has a heart of strength. I have learned that I, too, can handle situations with the strength and grace that she does, and I have learned that my granddad is and will always be the kind, giving gentleman who is always asking, "Would you like to have a hard candy?"
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Morgan Olson, 18, Schenectady, N.Y.
Have you seen Walter? I need to borrow his red tractor tomorrow morning.
I tell Paul that I haven't seen Walter yet, but could he tell me what he looks like? When this isn't comforting, I suggest that he can borrow my tractor. Even though it's green. But according to Paul, a green tractor just won't do, and asking Walter about it tomorrow will be far too late. So I ask him what Walter looks like, and he reassures me that I've met him before. I tell Paul that I'll be sure to let him know if I see Walter before morning. This satisfies Paul and he begins to walk back to his room.
You're the coldest fish I've ever met.
I can do nothing but apologize when Anna tells me this. Yet she mishears me and thinks that, instead of being remorseful, I am glad for this perceived accolade. I quickly reassure her that I am indeed sorry. Within minutes, her anger turns to appreciation and, in her eyes, my chilly fish-like characteristics have thawed to what she calls a "warm heart." I am amazed at how quickly she has changed her opinion, and wonder just how quickly it might reverse itself again.
I'm waiting for the bus to go have lunch with my mother.
By now, I'm grateful that it seems like instinct to respond to this type of statement. Never would I tell Mary that her mother isn't coming for lunch. Or that there's no point in waiting for the bus; it isn't going to come. Mentioning that it's three in the afternoon would simply be irrelevant. Because, what do I know? Instead, I ask her if she wants to come do an activity with me to pass the time before the bus comes.
I'm walking down the hallway with Margaret, hand in hand. Alzheimer's has dimmed her ability to speak in clear, articulate sentences, yet the passion and emotion behind her attempts remain bright. As we walk, I point out the beautiful spring day, sun shining through the window.
"Isn't it beautiful, Margaret?" I ask. She answers, and it is her emotions, not her words, that I can understand. She smiles and gestures with her free hand, implying that "it's about time for some nice weather." We continue, with Margaret's bright smile matching the sunshine and the color of her sweatshirt. "Margaret, I love your shirt," I say, pointing to the intricate design on the front. Again, she answers with words that could be passed off as inarticulate mumbles. However her body language says it all. As she looks down at her shirt, she uses her hand to motion to what she's wearing, making a somewhat surprised face at the same time. By her tone of voice, it's as if she's saying, "What? This old thing?" Finally, we encounter a table. In the corner sits a box of tissues. Without hesitation, Margaret looks at the box and says, clear as day, "What's that?"
It's incredible to see such a transformation in just a few seconds. I don't have the medical background to know how Margaret can go from mumbled, incoherent words to a crisp, clean sentence. However, this moment holds much more significance for me than any biological explanation ever could. It shows that she knew what she wanted to say. She was not lacking the ability to create thoughts (although I never thought this was the case), rather running after her elusive ability to express the thoughts she had. Just as the window acted as a glimpse into the sunny spring day outside, our encounter with the tissue box served as a glimpse into the intricacies of Alzheimer's disease. In a sense, Margaret became a face of Alzheimer's for me. She showed me that, in her case, Alzheimer's couldn't take away her desire to express thoughts and emotions. It just forced her to be more expressive with body language and those around her to be more receptive of it. At the same time, I learned to be grateful for my own ability to speak, something I had never really considered before.
I wanted Glorine to participate. Her smile filled the room with warmth and her eyes were wide with excitement, but for me, that wasn't enough. Her hands still remained motionless on her lap. I envisioned her mimicking the sign language I was teaching—at least one word, one try. Despite her end-stage Alzheimer's, this seemed like a sensible objective. It was a Sunday afternoon and I was on the Alzheimer's floor at the nursing home I volunteer at. It had been over two years since I created the sign language activity for these residents. Each person sitting on the surrounding couches was at a different stage in their fight against this memory-stealing, personality-altering disease. Yet they all had something in common. Just like every other Sunday, they would forget what I taught them within a matter of minutes—Glorine included. But that wasn't the point. I knew that with a little extra encouragement, Glorine could do it.
I continued with the activity, showing the residents my homemade "cue cards" and teaching them the corresponding signs. Each word sparked conversation from the residents. As I taught the sign for "garden," Denise reveled in memories of growing mustard greens in her Southern hometown. With the sign for "hamburger," the eyes of a petite woman named Mary quickly widened, and I guessed that her appetite was growing at a similar rate. "Dog" brought forth a smile from Chet, who told us about Rebel, his German Shepherd who always rode shotgun during his long truck-driving days.
Word by word, the residents became more enthusiastic. Glorine watched the residents as they spoke, and from this I knew she was listening. Her hands remained on her lap, though, not yet ready to try a sign. But her smile was still radiating warmth and I knew her interest had not yet ceased. The next word was "happy." I showed the residents a card with a bright smiling face on it. As I brushed my hands against my shoulders, demonstrating the sign I've known for so long, Glorine lifted her hands off of her lap. She raised them to her shoulders and, with her ever-present smile, she signed the word "happy." Her hands weren't perfectly positioned. She wasn't even touching her shoulders. But she was signing the word I was teaching. Her face was portraying happiness, a happiness that can sometimes be lost to Alzheimer's.
The goal I had set was achieved in that moment, yet I knew it was one I would have for Glorine each week. She would soon forget the sign for "happy," and the mere fact that she had learned sign language at all. Long-term retention had never been my goal, though. Instead, the focus was on "fighting" this cognitively debilitating disease with happiness. In that half hour, Glorine had smiled. She had laughed when others told funny stories. She had looked at and reacted to the pictures I had shown her. I knew firsthand that for her, this was an accomplishment. Sign language seemed to become an escape for the residents, an activity that encouraged moment-by-moment achievements. At this moment, the achievement for Glorine was communication. She was accustomed to expressing herself without spoken words, something that might be a struggle to those of us who take our abilities to communicate for granted. However, as Glorine signed "happy," I continued to learn that while Alzheimer's can strip a person of many things, it cannot take away the ability to feel and express emotions.
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Hannah Chute, 18, Marion, Iowa
“A Letter of Love”
Hey it's Hannah, I'm your granddaughter. I'm the blonde girl in the pictures we put in your room; I'm the one who comes to visit on Sunday and Wednesday nights. Although you may not always remember me, I can never stop thinking about you. The people at the nursing home said it's only going to get worse and that your memory will soon be gone. Maybe all you need is a reminder, a reminder of the great life you lived and of all your accomplishments. You have impacted my life in so many ways and so has the horrible disease they named Alzheimer's. I want to take this time to tell you all of that because even if someday you don't know me, I believe you will know that I love you.
It's sometimes hard to imagine what you were like before you had Alzheimer's because the way I see you now has become so routine. However, I always think of you sitting in our living room watching sports with all the guys. I remember you saving us spots downtown when we would want to go see the fireworks on the Fourth of July. My favorite memory of you is your endless support for whatever I chose to do. You came to all my in-town basketball games, and I have never heard someone say, "That's my granddaughter" more proudly than you. You would even walk over to my team in the middle of our huddle to wave and tell me "hi;" there was nothing that made me happier. As I sit in my bed crying and questioning why there is such a devastating disease and why it had to happen to you, I hold on to these memories. It's my turn to repay you for being the amazing person you can barely remember being.
I think you are the strongest person to have to go through something like this and the worst part is people aren't even aware of what you are going through. The misconception of it being an "old person" disease should be rid of. You are only 69, 57 when you first showed signs. You are a young grandparent to me. It is pure torture to watch you cry at not being able to see Grandma all the time, and it physically pains me to not have a good enough explanation when you ask why you have to stay at the nursing home and we get to leave. That is the first lesson I have learned: There aren't answers for everything and sometimes life isn't fair. However, that isn't an excuse for not doing anything to make life fair and it's definitely not an excuse for giving up. That is why on September 22, downtown was filled with people who hadn't given up. One thousand people held onto the hope for a better future and participated in an Alzheimer's walk. Each walker received a paper flower on which we wrote the name of the person we were walking for and stuck it in the ground as we left that day. As I was leaving the flower in the ground, I watched it spinning and spinning and how it wouldn't stop. That's when I thought of you. You have been stuck with something horrible, but you keep going and going. You have taught me a second lesson: perseverance.
They say there's no cure for Alzheimer's, but that doesn't mean there will never be one. While you are sitting in an Alzheimer's unit struggling to remember how to eat dinner every night, it is my job to raise awareness and get more people involved and caring. I wish you could see how much everyone loves you as much as I get to witness. Your absence on Christmas Eve was strongly felt as we set one less plate at the dinner table, and I can honestly say the best Christmas present I could've received was seeing you a few days prior. That is the third lesson you have indirectly taught me: You have reminded me what's important in life. Is complaining about my day or being stressed about minor details even at all comparable to you struggling to get out of bed because you have forgotten how to walk? Love is what's important. My mom's strength and patience is true love. She visits you so much and I can hear her on the phone with Grandma crying because she is now taking care of the man who always took care of her. It kills me to see her cry, but what shocks me the most is that she hugs me when I'm crying. When I can't handle the sadness of the situation anymore, it's she who is strong enough for the both of us. She is the living definition of love.
When Grandma has had to make immense decisions for your health, including moving you to an Alzheimer's unit because it wasn't safe for you to be home alone and giving up seeing you every hour, I somehow find a prayer book on her table or a prayer card in her purse. This has taught me a fourth lesson: faith. While watching you barely have enough energy to stay awake and seeing you speechless because your brain can't possibly process what you are trying to say, I must remind myself of faith. I must remind myself that for everything in life there is a plan. Whether you disagree with the plan completely or not, you have to realize that someday you will understand, but it may not be today.
I have learned a fifth lesson: the true definition of support. Some of your old friends who I haven't ever met still come to visit you and people who you would expect to be there for you aren't, but it has shown me something valuable. It showed me that the people who are with you at your lowest moments are the ones you want around anyway. There have been more times than I can keep track of over the years where I have broken down and cried or where I have shut down because the pain of watching you suffer becomes suffocating. The same people are always there to pick me back up. The same community is there to fall back on. The same friends are the ones who let me cry, but remind me that you don't want me to cry. You want me to remember you the way you were.
The way you were isn't the way you are now, but that doesn't mean that I don't love you even more. I'll never know what's going on in your mind, but I pray every night that you are happy inside. I hope that when you are sleeping you get relief. I hope you have magnificent dreams of spending time with us, of owning Taylor Insulation, and of date nights with Grandma when she was your high school sweetheart. This is why no matter how many times you repeat yourself, I don't mind; it's spending time with you that matters. There are countless times that I don't understand what you are saying, but as long as it makes sense to you I'm happy.
You taught me how to find who I am. It's not about me; it's about you. It's about helping you and helping all those around you that are struggling with a disease that literally ruins your brain. It's about believing in the impossible because someday there will be a cure. Someday, high schoolers won't have to go each day wondering how badly Alzheimer's is affecting their loved ones. Someday, parents won't have to remind their own parents of who they are. Someday, spouses won't be separated from their loved ones because they aren't capable of taking care of them. Someday, there will be a world without Alzheimer's. The only way to get to that day is with hope. Hope is the most important lesson you have shown me. It is the very essence that connects you to me and all human beings to each other.
I want to thank you for being the best grandpa I could've been blessed with. Thank you for hugging me every time I visit, not even knowing that this could be the last hug we ever exchange. Thank you for loving me. I promise you I will never give up hope and I will never lose the memories we have shared. Despite your circumstances, you have still managed to live an incredible life and teach me so much, and, for this reason, I know Alzheimer's will never win because you already have.
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Emily Bonasia, Coral Springs, Fla.
“The World and the Woman”
I learned of the gift of life in 1927. The first transatlantic telephone call is made via radio from New York City to London, Werner Heisenberg formulates his famous uncertainty principle, Charles Lindbergh makes the first solo, nonstop transatlantic airplane flight, carried out from New York City to Paris, France, in his single-engine aircraft, the Spirit of St. Louis, and The U.S. Bureau of Prohibition is created. It is a time of reformation and scientific progress. This new age was ushered in by the birth of a baby girl in Manhattan, N.Y.
I learned of the importance of hard work in 1943. The U.S. Women's Army Corps is converted to full status, U.S. General Dwight D. Eisenhower publicly announces the surrender of Italy to the Allies, and The Great Depression officially ends. As the American public wins the battle against unemployment and starvation, the now 16-year-old girl gets her first job as a secretary in New York City.
I learned of the magic of love in 1944. World War II rages on, U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt proposes a Second Bill of Rights in his State of the Union Address, Mahatma Gandhi is released from jail in India, the transportation of Hungarian Jews to Auschwitz begins, The Liberation of Paris occurs in late August, and the International Committee of the Red Cross wins the Nobel Peace Prize. Amidst all the social disparity happening globally, two ordinary people met and fell in love in a small ice cream parlor in the Bronx, N.Y.
I learned of the division of war in 1945. The SS begins evacuation of Auschwitz concentration camp where nearly 60,000 prisoners, mostly Jews, are forced to march to other locations in Germany, "Black Friday" occurs as a force of Allied Bristol Beaufighter aircraft suffers heavy casualties in an unsuccessful attack on German destroyer Z33, and U.S. President Harry Truman announces the successful atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. At home in the U.S., an 18-year-old girl worries about the safety of her love, now a soldier drafted in the U.S. Navy.
I learned of the meaning of passion in 1947. Jackie Robinson becomes the first African American to play Major League Baseball since the 1880s, India gains independence from Britain, and Princess Elizabeth marries The Duke of Edinburgh at Westminster Abbey in London, United Kingdom. However, the royal marriage pales in comparison to the marriage of a 20-year-old girl to her love who has safely returned from the Navy, ready to start their lives together in the Bronx.
I learned of the love of motherhood in 1953 when the girl, now a woman, became the mother of her first of four children. Now residents of Plainview, N.Y., a suburb on Long Island, she and her husband took advantage of the post-war housing boom and moved into a new house in which to raise their family. Life was good as their family expanded to four, in 1957, with a son, and to five, in 1963, with a daughter. Before their family would peak at six, in 1966, with a baby girl, the unthinkable happened. In 1964, I learned the weight of responsibility and the grief of loss when the woman's parents passed away in a fatal car accident, and she was left, the oldest of eight, to be a parental figure for her siblings as well as her children.
The very next year, I learned the struggle of a choice when her husband was asked to go to Japan for his job and leave his still-grieving wife and three kids at home. This trip to Japan was followed by 71 others. During one in 1968, I learned the wonder of culture when the woman was able to accompany her husband to Japan for the first time.
Her life progressed from that point on as a stay-at-home mother of four. She watched them grow into wonderful individuals. Some moved out and married loves of their own, others graduated and pursued careers, and I learned the art of letting go.
The woman wasn't left without the pitter-patter of little feet for long, though. When I was born in 1995, she became a grandma, and I learned the meaning of the word idol. Almost every year since my birth, I have flown from Florida to New York in the summer to visit my grandparents and build my relationship with them. Over the years, the woman has watched me grow, and I have watched her age through rose-colored glasses. I've watched her scuttle around the kitchen, cooking huge meals for our huge Italian family. I've seen the pride in her eyes when she looks around the table at her children during the holidays. I've marveled at her beautiful penmanship as she signed checks to do her bills. I've listened to the stories of her past, and seen the light of understanding in her eyes as she listened to mine.
I learned of the impact of Alzheimer's disease in 2013. My grandmother's memory had been slowly deteriorating for a few years. Through my rose-colored glasses, I refused to think of her small instances of forgetfulness as anything more than old age. My mother and her siblings began to take her to see specialists when she began to forget to pay the bills or write out birthday cards, deadlines she had previously met with impeccable precision. Last year, the official diagnosis came. She had Alzheimer's disease. This was a word that I never thought would apply to this woman. She was too strong, had been through too much for this disease to rob her mind of the stories that had dazzled me as a child.
I now hear the doubt in her voice when I call to ask what she did that day. I see the confusion in her eyes when my grandpa tells her she has a doctor's appointment. I feel the disappointment she felt when my aunt took over her favorite job of doing the bills. It kills me to see her so dependent upon my grandpa for answers she once gave him. From this, I've learned the pain of forgetting.
I feel as though my rose-colored glasses were transferred to her as our roles switched. Now, when I go to visit them, I am the one cooking, cleaning, driving, and ensuring that the medication is taken, and when I'm not there, it falls onto my angel of an aunt. Now, during the holidays, my grandma, who used to be known as "the hostess with the mostess," sits quietly in her happy little bubble of a world while the rest of us prepare the food and gifts. And now, when we go to the diner, her daily breakfast destination where everyone calls her "the mayor," she has the same conversations with the same people and acts as if it is the first time she has heard them. As she continues on this way, I learn the definition of the word detached.
And, detached is exactly what she has become. This woman used to be the epitome of style with matching "everythings" to go with every outfit. That has all changed as she now will wear the same thing three days in a row if left unmonitored. She was so meticulous, and now that has been replaced by a disconnect that is impossible to breach, and it is taking its toll.
I have truly learned what a family is and how far they will go for one of their own since this disease took root. My grandpa has demonstrated what it means to be a husband. He wakes her up every morning to give her medication. He drives her back and forth to the diner every day. He cooks for her, helps her up, lets her hold onto him as she walks, and still loves her every bit as much as he did when they married in 1947. However, all of this responsibility has taken its toll on him, a man of almost 90 years of age. I see it. He is slowing down, and because of this, my mother, aunts and uncles are speeding up. They have taken over almost every financial undertaking; they cook weekly meals for my grandpa to heat up; they clean the house; and they drive them to the doctor's office. While they work on, I learn how to care for aging parents.
Alzheimer's is the result of a small mistake in the entire three billion letters of our human genome. That small mistake in the sequence of letters affects one amino acid that alters one protein that leaves a person a shell of who they once were. Through coping with this disease, I have learned of the cruelty of biology, the unfairness of luck, and the resiliency of my grandma. She has handled the confusion and the emotions so admirably. She is a fighter, and as such, she has taught me the most important lesson thus far: Never give up.
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“The Story of a Man”
I sat patiently at the bench, waiting for my family to arrive. The smell of incense filled the room, overtaking dozens of flower bouquets that embellished every corner. My young cousin took hold of my hand, looking for me to say words of wisdom. I could only offer, "He wouldn't want you to be sad, so stay strong."
Let me tell you a story of a man. He was a refugee from the Vietnam War who toiled and struggled to deliver his 12 children to the land of the free. Years after finally reaching America, his eldest daughter gave birth to two children: my brother and me. Growing up with my grandfather, I was taught many lessons, though I did not understand at the time, and sadly, to my regret, I overlooked them.
My young years growing up in our small house seemed to pass by in a flash. I faintly remembered the kindness of my grandfather. He would often buy gifts for me from the dollar store and would feed the neighborhood strays who wandered into our home. Young and naïve, I believed he bought all these items because he was wealthy, not knowing he collected recyclables for the money.
My family arrived and I obediently followed my orders, but my eyes often strayed to what lay between the two flower columns.
Years passed by and I no longer lived with my grandparents. My mother faced health issues and my brother and I were taught to be more independent as my mother needed her rest. My Vietnamese fluency began deteriorating as I only spoke English for school. I gradually lost my ability to converse with my grandfather but he tried his hardest to strike conversations with me using simple Vietnamese terms. Because of his patience and kindness, we could still hold conversations.
After hours of praying, each person was to take a rose from a basket. I gently picked out a white rose.
Camping and traveling with my grandfather, I believed the good times would never end, but like the leaves which bloomed beautifully in the spring, eventually it would fall. I remember the chaotic day when my grandmother had a stroke. Thankfully she survived her ordeal but things were never the same. My grandfather, however, stayed strong and by her side through every step. I noticed he started forgetting simple things but I believed it to be an effect of old age; I didn't know what he was suffering from, and like my other relatives, I focused on my grandmother's health instead.
We formed a line, with me in front of my cousins. As I watched my relatives give my grandfather a rose, I felt a churning feeling in my heart. My grandmother passed by in tears with my mother comforting her.
As the year passed, my mother told me stories of my grandfather's condition and even I could see the deterioration of his mind each time he visited our home. He seemed lost from touch with the present time and told us the same stories about his childhood over and over.
Gradually, his friends stopped visiting him. It was too hard for them to bear his condition. He would always tell the same stories, not knowing he already told them so many times before. Family became all he had.
I reached my grandfather, bowed with respect towards him and lightly offered him my rose. "I'll always be your Chuot," I whispered.
Along with my growing age, my grandfather's condition escalated too. He was more childlike, questioning several things, forgetting the purpose of household items, having bathroom accidents, and forgetting to do simple tasks such as flushing the toilet. Worst of all, with each new visit, I watched him forget my relatives. I watched my cousins cry when he forgot them. I watched the sadness on my aunts' faces when he asked who they were. I felt special for he still remembered me, his Chuot—his little mouse—a nickname I used to loathe in the past.
My time was approaching. My eldest uncle went up first, then my father, then my uncle-in-law, and so on. Tears were shed, tissues pulled from their boxes, and noses blown. I could hear my young cousins break down into heavy sobs as I held in my own tears. "He wouldn't want to see me crying," I repeated to myself.
He always tried to be helpful to his children, attempting to clean up around the house, but due to his memory loss, he often misplaced items. My family was patient at first, but with each item disappearing, it grew harder. One day, my uncle's glasses were misplaced. My uncle's patience crumpled as he asked my grandfather where he placed it. Though he forgot many things, my grandfather's pride was intact. He believed his own family thought of him as a thief and he grew furious. He started to become more frustrated with his life as his condition consumed him.
My uncle motioned me to come to the front. I realized, too late, that I forgot my speech at home. I grew anxious as I made my way to the front, the clacking of my heels speeding my pulse. I was handed the microphone. With one look at my grandfather, I turned to my audience and delivered my feelings.
He finally forgot my face. I greeted him at the doorway of my home as I usually did, but this time was different. "Whose child are you?" I felt a pang in my heart but I still forced a smile and replied simply, "I am Chuot," in hopes he would remember the nickname. To my happiness his face lit up with remembrance and he hugged me like usual but our relationship had changed. He only remembered the little girl who he bought Barbies for, not the current me.
I was complimented after the ceremony, but I didn't feel content. My uncle-in-law walked up to me, and he, too, congratulated me, but afterwards he looked to my grandfather who lay in the distance, and said, "Your grandfather was a great man. If only more people knew about him."
I was cleaning my closet one day when one of my stuffed animals fell on top of my head—my old friend Wolfie—a souvenir from my grandfather. My old memories of the Yellowstone trip came back. I remembered climbing to the top of Arch Canyon, only my grandfather and me since my parents were too tired to climb. Reaching the top, we viewed a breathtaking vision. The valley seemed to be painted with the colors of the sunset. I was sad to leave, but my grandfather promised we would come back in 10 years and climb it again. As I held Wolfie close, I looked at the calendar. Half a year left till our 10-year promise.
Later that week, however, I discovered our promise would never be kept. He was diagnosed with bone cancer.
That night, as my relatives dined and my cousins played together, I secluded myself in an empty room, staring at the moon outside the window. I closed my teary eyes, pictured my grandfather and promised him, "I'll make you proud."
My relatives traveled far to visit my grandfather in his final days. Though he had forgotten everyone, he was happy to have so much company, to always have someone holding his hand as he lay bedridden and to tell him that all those around him were his children and grandchildren. There was a time when all of us gathered around him and though he could barely create expressions, a smile peeked from his lips. I wish I could have said at that time, "Look, aren't you proud? All of your children, all of your grandchildren, we're successful. We have done what you have always taught us to do. We all are now medical staff, law professionals, college students, or honors students." My grandfather had always valued education. His wish was for each of us to obtain it because to him, education opened people's eyes and hearts.
I felt angry at the disease. Why did it take away his time? Thanks to him, we are all living happily in America. His wish had been fulfilled but he forgot us all. He wasn't able to bathe in happiness knowing his wish had been achieved. The disease took that away.
No matter how much time passes, I will never forget my promise to him. Before I knew he had bone cancer, I made a phone call to him. At the end of the phone call I told him, "One day I will become a great doctor and help take care of you!" I may not be able to keep half of that promise now but I will strive to become a great doctor. I cannot take care of my grandfather anymore, but I will have the ability to help many others.
Let me tell you a story about a man.
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Lauren Marshall, Coventry, Conn.
“Photographs, Piggy Banks, and Chocolate Ice Cream:
Memories of a Life Taken by Alzheimer's Disease”
Tucked behind the numerous accolades and knickknacks on my bookshelf is a picture of my grandfather and me, before he forgot my name. Seven-year-old me is sitting on his lap, reading "Molly" to him, a jovial smile on his face and his arms wrapped around me. Although "Molly" is a book of which I have long forgotten the plot, I remember tracing over the words with my finger, my grandfather's quiet voice chiming in to fill in the words I couldn't pronounce.
Just to the right of that is a handmade piggy bank adorned by a jumping horse that was my eighth birthday present. Devoid of coins, its wealth is in the memory of my grandfather's soft "I love you" after I had ripped off its wrapping paper and looked up at him, my face grinning that childish, toothless smile.
We all have tokens of memories long past, often covered in dust and shoved to the back of closets, covered up by the latest trends. Occasionally uncovering these treasures during spring cleaning elicits a welcome wave of nostalgia.
Shoved to the back of my bookshelf are dust-covered memories of more innocent days, before disease gripped my family, took my grandfather away, and forced me to see my dad cry for the first time. Alzheimer's has plagued my family for years, our final refuge found in the midnight call bearing the news of the death of my grandfather.
Some might view Alzheimer's as a curse, a death sentence, or a plague. No doubt, it is all of these things, but upon reflection, the disease promotes appreciation for the moments I still have with my family. I only have limited memories of my grandfather, for he was diagnosed with Alzheimer's when I was 10 and forgot my name by the time I was 13. Although I never got to spend much time with him, memories of him circulate throughout my life daily. I will never forget visiting the nursing home with my father one day, arriving to the news that my grandfather refused to drink anything, which made administering his medications extremely difficult.
Instantly, my father chimed in, "Give him anything chocolate flavored he'll drink that." Right, the chocolate-loving gene that had been passed down from him, to my father, and to me. Give any of us chocolate milk or a chocolate milkshake and we will polish it off in seconds. Sure enough, he took his medications in front of us that day with the help of some chocolate milk.
As absurd as it may sound, to this day I can't pick up a carton of chocolate ice cream without thinking about him. Although this memory is seemingly insignificant, it represents what I have left to hold onto of my grandfather. I have those little memories that remind me of who he really is, before his disease stripped away his personality and his light, carefree voice.
Before his dementia progressed very far, he would tell animated stories of his experiences as a newspaper photographer in the 50s and 60s? we heard everything from snapping away onsite at street riots or house fires to the struggles in the darkroom of achieving that perfect exposure. I realize where my love for photography comes from, again passed down from my grandfather, to my father, and finally to me. Every time I look through the viewfinder on my Canon or watch a print develop before my eyes in the darkroom, I think of my grandfather, and how his memory lives eternally within the little tidbits that make up who I am.
Not all my memories of him are carefree and innocent, though. I remember seeing the dejection on my dad's face as we walked into the nursing home one day only to find my grandfather refusing to talk to us because he "didn't know who those strangers are." That was it: He didn't even recognize his own son, someone who was practically a perfect copy of him. Identical pairs of piercing blue eyes stared back at each other. My dad whispered, "Dad, it's me. Your son." My grandfather stared blankly back at him, eliciting no reaction. There wasn't even a twitch of a smile or a flicker in his eyes like he usually gave us when we came to see him. To him, it was as if we had never existed.
For a moment, it was as if he stopped being my grandfather and was just some old man stuck in a nursing home. I looked at him the way a stranger looks at another stranger: halfhearted and somewhat dejected. Every memory I held so dearly—on my bookshelf, and in a bowl of chocolate ice cream, and in my camera viewfinder—was erased from his brain, covered up by whatever chemical concoction stole my real grandfather away from me and left his empty body to disintegrate in a wheelchair.
When we cleaned out his house, we stumbled across a candid photograph from World War II of my grandfather kneeling to work on something in his Air Force uniform. After he died, we propped the picture up in our dining room, a reminder of the man who had been missing from a decaying body for the past five years. For weeks, my dad couldn't sit through a meal without tearing up over his father. The rest of us would sit in silence, unsure of what to do or say.
I had this image in my head of my stoic, hardened New England father who never outwardly expressed emotions. Growing up, we might have heard an "I'm proud of you," but we appreciated his presence at every insignificant event and could read the flickers of pride and adoration in his eyes? that was enough for us. But here he was, our hero, appearing vulnerable and weak, and none of us knew what to do. My two brothers and I were helpless to our father, just as he had been helpless to his father.
That's when I decided it had to end. This never-ending cycle of helplessness to a disease that ripped families apart and stole beloved people out of human bodies had to be stopped. And if there is one thing my grandfather and my father have taught me, it is that we never stop fighting. I refuse to accept "terminal" as an answer to the question of Alzheimer's.
The perils my father and grandfather endured have inspired me to study biomedical and neurological engineering, in the hopes to provide a treatment for this devilish disease. I may not be able to stop biological triggers or the passing of time, but I can contribute to the effort to end Alzheimer's and give children back their parents.
As I looked at my grandfather, slumped over in his wheelchair, his cheeks sunken in and the light cadenced dance of his eyes forever gone, I realized that we can no longer be helpless to a disease that we have allowed to control our lives.
Although my father never uttered a word about his resentment of this disease, he fought the same uphill battle every day, and the least I can do is continue the fight for him. For some, Alzheimer's plows a path of destruction and grief, but for me, it has given a piece of hope to hang on to: hope for a future, hope to save other families from enduring what mine has, and hope for the medical field. I may be one small piece in a much larger field of medical advancement, but if an innovation can prevent the onset of Alzheimer's in at least one family, I will consider myself successful in my fight against this disease.
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Laurel Nalezny, Naperville, Ill.
“A Life-Changing Experience”
"Laurel, would you put my socks on for me?"
"Laurel, would you help me put my necklace on?"
"Laurel, would you please carry my dishes to the kitchen?"
These are the questions that my 92-year-old grandma loudly calls out to me from her room every day because for the past seven years of my life, my grandparents have lived with me. I never get annoyed by these questions because I love my grandparents very much and I know they truly appreciate the help. There are so many benefits that come from them living with my family, like spending time with them every day. Assisting them after they moved in really impacted my life more than I ever would have imagined because now I know that I want to become a nurse.
My grandparents were very independent at first and could do most things on their own, but as time went on they started needing a little more help with daily tasks, like cooking meals and taking their medicine. About a year and a half ago my grandpa died, leaving just my grandma, who has Alzheimer's disease. Thankfully, she still knows who the people in my family are because she sees them every day, but she needs to be reminded of things like what day it is and where she lives. It is very frustrating for her because she wants to remember and she knows the disease is taking over and there is nothing she can do. It can be difficult for my family, as well, because we have to repeat ourselves often and my grandma needs someone to be with her at all times so that she does not fall or become frightened by being left alone. I relieve the caregiver after school, allowing my parents to be able to work and not worry about anything happening to her. I often help her get dressed in the morning and make her breakfast. It is important that we stick to a routine so that she can be as independent as possible and I have learned to be dependable and responsible in order to maintain her care.
As a family, it can be very difficult sometimes because we cannot just simply go out to dinner or go to a movie together. Someone either has to stay home, or we have to make sure we call someone in advance to come over and watch her. When we go on vacation, my mom does a lot of planning and scheduling to make sure that after one caregiver leaves, another one will be there after to take their place. It can be hard on all of us because, sometimes, we just want to go out for a few hours or want to go away for a weekend, but it is just too hard to plan. Even though it can be difficult, I do not regret the fact that she lives with us. She would never, ever want to cause our family any trouble. She would want to be helping us, not the other way around. I love her so much and I truly enjoy every second I have with her. I know that someday she probably will not remember who I am, which is really heartbreaking to think about, but that is why I want to spend all the time I can with her. Whether it is eating dinner together, or simply sitting next to her while she watches TV, I can tell that she loves my company, and I love hers.
It is hard to remember clearly what my grandma was like before the disease set in, but what I do remember, quite vividly, is her serving and loving nature. She wanted nothing more than for my sister and me to be happy. We would go to her house and she would rub our backs, read and sing to us. My grandma had this special glow to her and she was eager to serve everyone around her. My mom has told me stories about my grandma when she was a nurse. She was studious and was proudly ranked at the top of her class in high school. She went on to college to be a dietitian, but later changed her mind and became a nurse. She had this ability to care for everyone around her. Her neighbors would call all the time with questions about packing wounds or even just advice about their health. They had such a strong appreciation for her that they even created a "Woman of the Year" award for her. Her patients loved her and she loved her patients. Even though she does not remember it now, once in a while her nursing background will kick in. If someone in my family is sick, she will somehow know and ask us what our symptoms are or how we are feeling. I truly believe that nursing is such a strong part of who she is that she will never forget her passion for it. Even though she does not know it, she has taught me so much.
From this experience, I have learned some qualities about myself that I never knew I had. My mom says that I have the most patience with my grandma than anyone else in my family. I know how difficult it must be for my grandma and I often try to put myself in her shoes. It is hard to imagine not being able to remember where I live or who my children are. I have also learned that I want to become a nurse because I really take pride in helping people. I discovered this the time my grandma fell and broke her hip. My sister and I found my grandma one morning lying on the floor in pain. My parents were out on a walk and we knew we had to step up and help. We instantly called my parents and, in the meantime, had to not only keep our composure, but also keep my grandma calm because she was becoming faint. We propped her up and asked her questions, reassuring her that everything was going to be ok. At that moment, I knew that just like my grandma, taking care of people was what I wanted to do. I figured that being able to take action under pressure was a gift that I needed to use.
Without Alzheimer's disease in my life, I am not sure I would know how lucky I am to have the family that I do. My mom and dad made a very big decision when they decided to add an addition on to our house so that my grandparents could move in when my grandma's memory started getting worse. It would have been easy to put them in a nearby nursing home where they would get 24-hour care, but they took on the task themselves. I truly admire them for that and I know they made the right decision. It also would have been easy for my family to grow further apart during this journey—for example one person in my family could have done all of the work with taking care of my grandma—but I feel that we all share the responsibilities equally. We work together and never argue, and I am very grateful for that. If anything good could come from this terrible disease, I know it made my family stronger.
As time goes on, I know that there will be more struggles for our family in caring for my grandma at home. Unfortunately, my grandma's memory will get worse, and she will need more help than ever before, but I think that I have and will only discover more about myself and the person that I want to be.
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Lily Obeda, Minneapolis, Minn.
My grandmother sits, lazily rocking in her small blue armchair. I watch as she tugs idly at the knit on the arm of a beautiful sweater. She picks at the knots carefully, and unravels them one by one. The sweater, with its intricate cable knit, lays obediently over the arm of her chair, awaiting its fate. The knots that she pulls easily give way to her delicate fingers. The mauve yarn that has already been unraveled lays limp in her lap, piling haphazardly. It still retains some of its shape as it falls, as if it did not want to give up its place. The once-splendid sweater has now lost almost an entire arm. She looks up from her sweater for a moment, and, noticing my presence, looks straight at me. She smiles, and nods to the sweater.
"Do yah like knitting, too?" She asks me, her words coated in a thick Minnesotan accent. "I do. Did you knit that?" I ask. I asked her the same question last week, and the week before. She answers the same way she always does, confidently saying, "Oh yah, oh yah, once upon a time I did. I'm a master knitter, yah know! How about you, Lil? You want a sweater like this?"
"Sure, grandma," I say, humoring her, even though I know she can't knit anymore. "I'll get right on yours after I finish Rya's, and then some mittens for Lil--" She stops. Her stopping is not a good sign. "Grandma?" I ask. She just stares. I know what is happening. My stomach sinks, because I know that it is my fault that her mind is now working overtime.
In her reality, I am stuck at six or seven. When she sees my face she recognizes me as me, but sees a teenager staring back. The cognitive dissonance is too much for her to handle. She silently goes back to work, hurriedly tearing stitches out of the sweater. She ignores me and mumbles to herself, "A sweater for Rya, mittens for Lily," over and over again. The mauve yarn piles and piles and piles. It somehow feels as if she is unraveling faster than the sweater.
I am one of the lucky ones in my family. I have a huge family, but she still recognizes me as myself, and can even comprehend my age. She often asks my mother where I'm going to college. At the same time, though, she is confused by my presence. She doesn't visually understand who I am. Even with that slight glitch, being remembered more than other, older cousins is somehow comforting. It makes me feel as if all of the time I've spent with her has truly made an impact.
I have made a point of visiting her often, and for that, I feel rewarded. Going to the cabin to visit my grandmother and her sister with Alzheimer's was always a weekly affair for me. Every Friday, after my mother's radio show, we would pack up and drive out to the lake. There, my grandmother would be waiting for us. It was a summer tradition! When my grandmother was diagnosed with Alzheimer's too, the trips changed in purpose.
While my great aunt's family took care of her needs, we had to start taking care of my grandmother's as well. We started doing all of her shopping, and visiting my grandmother seemed more and more like work and not fun for a seven-year-old girl.
As my grandmother's mind started its progressive unraveling, our trips became more frequent. The trips ceased to be for fun; instead, they often had the sole purpose of taking care of my grandmother. For years, I felt like going up to the cabin was an irritating chore. The worst part of it all was that I started to resent my family. I would often ask myself why I bothered to go up to visit if neither my grandmother nor her sister were going to remember me in a year.
Luckily for me, my mother always insisted I go with her. My great aunt passed away a little over a year after my grandmother's diagnosis. I was too young to feel the full weight of the situation, but even at eight, I understood why my great aunt had passed away: Alzheimer's made her mind and body stop working. My family fell into grieving, but my grandmother cried the hardest of all. Perhaps because she lost her sister, but I think even greater than that was the realization of her fate.
One weekend visit was different from the rest. It had been two years since my great aunt had passed. It was my grandmother's 88th birthday weekend, and we were planning a huge party. The visit was just for fun! The party itself went swimmingly: it was a beautiful summer day, there was friends and family galore, and she had a great time telling a select few stories to everyone, twice. That night, we went to sleep, content with the long day we'd had.
The next morning, my mother and I were up bright and early. Usually, my grandmother would have been with us, but when we went to wake her up, she told us she hadn't slept well, and that she'd like more rest. We thought nothing of it; of course she was tired! She had spent the day before out in the sun, chatting with lots of people. But when we went to wake her up at noon, she told us the same thing. Then, at one, a pull at the mental knit. At two, another stitch gone. At three, the sweater started to seemingly fall apart by itself. We called an ambulance.
As the paramedics brought my grandmother from her bed and into the living room, she joked with them: "Wow, look at these long legs I got here! Dontcha' go fallin' in love with me, now!" Even at the hospital, she joked, "Well, I'll tell yah what. If I end up dead now, I'll have one bit of comfort at least: no matter if I go to heaven or hell, one 'a my parents'll be waitin' for me at each gate!" At the time I was mad at her for being so cheery, especially about death. In retrospect, I realize it was the only coping mechanism she had left.
At the hospital, we were told that she had had a TIA, or a "mini stroke," sometime in the night or early morning, and that this, almost definitely, was not the first one. We were crushed. My mother knew that my grandmother had been progressing, but this was as if the sweater of her mind suddenly had one less arm, and the rest was unraveling faster than before.
We had no choice but to put her in an assisted living memory care unit. It killed my mother to have to take my grandmother away from her home. She knew how important the home was to my grandmother, but she felt her hands were tied. She couldn't leave my grandmother alone anymore, but we couldn't pack up and move to take care of her, and we couldn't afford a live-in nurse. I tried to be as supportive as possible for my mom, but my mother's guilt was only exacerbated by the difficulty in transitioning for my grandmother.
Every day for two months, she would pack up her things, and try to leave the memory care unit, saying that she wanted to go home. Every day, the staff would tell her that she lived there, and that the memory care unit was her home. During those first two months, everything seemed harder. We still visited her every weekend, but she had changed. Her memory had rearranged itself.
She accused us of leaving her to rot, killing her sister, killing my grandfather, or anything else she could think of. She was belligerent to the staff. My mother and I never left the memory care unit with dry eyes.
After the first couple of months, things started to calm down. She accepted her situation, and her memory, while changed, stopped creating terrible situations. Visiting her every weekend stopped being something I dreaded, and went back to being something I loved. She let me sit and watch her unravel sweaters. She still tells me the same stories, but I can understand now that none of them are as boring or irritating as I once thought. She's telling me them because she wants to have a conversation with me, and she's trying as hard as she can.
For 10 years now, she has tried as hard as she could to give me all of the love that she had, and I am ashamed that it took so long for me to realize it. Even if she is a sweater that is falling apart, I cherish her, and I will stay cozy warm with her until she is gone.
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Micah Rubart, Woodinville, Wash.
“The Blessing of Alzheimer's”
"Now tell me, Micah, how is track season going for you this year?"
I smile at my Grandpa across the white, round table in his backyard and say, "I just told you about that, Grandpa. Do you remember?"
"Oh, that's right! What's going on with my mind these days? I guess there's only so much room up here." He taps his bald head three times with his forefinger, laughs, and I join him.
Then I tell him for the second time on this sun-drenched spring afternoon about running the hurdles, and how much I like it. He smiles when I tell him I've won a few races, frowns when I tell him I've lost a few as well, and when we finish, my Grandpa toasts me with his lemonade and tells me how proud he is of me, and that he loves me.
For the next 15 minutes we chat about my mom and dad, his wife (and my grandma) how he's not swimming down at the YMCA anymore—but can't remember why he stopped—and how green his back lawn is looking.
Then he leans forward, his eyes bright, and he takes my hand in his. "Tell me, Micah, how are you doing in track this year?" As he squeezes my hand tight, tears fill his blue-gray eyes. "I'll bet anything you're a star." The tears spill onto his cheeks. "Yep, they're lucky to have you, right? I'm so proud of you."
I smile at him as wide as I know how, and begin to tell him again.
Alzheimer's did a funny thing to my grandpa. I want to tell you about it, but first let me give you a little background so you'll understand the significance of how he changed.
My grandpa grew up in West Seattle as an only child, had an extremely difficult childhood, joined the Navy at 19, and never returned home. But the scars of his early years went with him. He built a shell around himself to keep his heart from being hurt again. He learned how to block any emotions from getting in, and he learned how to keep them from getting out. And he learned how not to cry.
My grandpa was honorable to all, worked extremely hard to provide for my grandma, my dad and my aunt. But saying I love you was a challenge for him. He would say, "You're the best in my book," and, "You're #1 in my mind," and when I told him I loved him, he responded with pats on the shoulder and big smiles, but expressing what was really going on deep inside wasn't as easy.
Then the Alzheimer's came.
It progressed slowly at first, and we didn't notice the profound change in Grandpa until Thanksgiving Day, a year and a half after he'd been diagnosed. After our traditional prayer, my grandpa didn't let go of my hand on his right, or my dad's hand on his left.
"You know something? I don't know what I'd do without all of you. You're so special to me. So, so special. All of you are such a gift from God, and you're what I'm most thankful for today."
Tears welled up in my grandpa's eyes first, but the other nine of us around that table joined him within seconds. It was the first time I'd heard him speak with such tenderness and love.
After that, in the following months and years, the rest of the shell cracked, then sloughed off until there was nothing left but a tender, compassionate, funny, playful man. A man no one could keep from falling in love with.
And his inhibitions? Gone! He started going up to strangers and engaging them in conversation like they were long lost friends. Laughter constantly poured out of his mouth. He poked fun at himself, and teased others with the gentlest of words. Every holiday meal became a celebration of life and each other.
There was a freedom that grew in him that I believe most of us long for. He didn't care what others thought. He didn't worry about saying the wrong things at the wrong times. He was completely, utterly himself in every moment and it made it hard to keep a grin off my face when I was with him. And it made me want to be like him.
The transformation my grandpa went through has changed me forever. I don't look at people the same way anymore. Now when I meet someone who is a bit gruff, or seems closed off, I don't judge them. Because I can't see what's underneath the surface. I don't know the pain they've been through that has caused them to build walls around their heart, so I look for the good, the joy, the brightness, and the tenderness that is floating deep inside them. Because I believe it's in there. Sometimes I can see it. I think anyone can if they'll take the time to find it.
I was also changed by how my grandma cared for him during the years my grandpa's mind was slipping away. At dinner parties she was always there to fill in the blanks, to finish a story when my grandpa couldn't. At the grocery store, when he couldn't remember that he loved Hershey's Chocolate syrup on his ice cream, she gently reminded him. She made his life as normal as was possible. My grandma seamlessly guided him from day to day as questions he knew the answer to on Monday vanished by the time Friday arrived.
When he woke up at 2 a.m. four nights in a row, not knowing where he was or who he was, she talked him through it, comforted him, and reassured him that it would be all right. And then in the morning, she would make his scrambled eggs with a touch of cheddar cheese, and English muffins, and strong coffee and tell him how much she loved him—even though he wouldn't remember the comment two minutes later.
My grandma taught me that love is not a feeling, but a commitment. They vowed on their wedding day to love each other in sickness and in health. Maybe she didn't understand what she was promising—how could she at 21 years old? But she lived out her promise anyway. People said she should put him in a home. She never considered it. There's no gold medal for doing what my grandma did. No parades or interviews on TV. But there should be, because I'll remember her example of selfless love long after the latest movie star or athlete fades from my mind.
I realize "The Blessing of Alzheimer's" is a strange title for an essay. And please understand, it was devastating to watch my grandpa's memories slowly slip away. It ripped at all of us to see my grandpa stolen from us by this insidious disease, and when he breathed his last, we all broke down.
But it was also an incredible gift to me, and the rest of my family. It allowed us to see, and celebrate, and get to know the fascinating, wonderful, incredibly loving man who had been hidden for all those years. Alzheimer's released him and he burst out, and danced with us, loved us with abandon, and showed us a freedom I want to live from every day for the rest of my life.
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Makayla Urbauer, Lincoln, Neb.
“The One Who Was Like Me”
It was 1924 when I was born to a Swedish immigrant couple with two girls and one boy. I was the baby, and the fourth. My father was a farmer and a distant man; he didn't show his emotions or affection to his children so I wasn't close to him. I grew up in Iowa during the Depression, wearing flour sack dresses to the school I had to walk a couple miles to every day. When I was a teenager, I wasn't too bad looking and would have been quite pretty if my teeth weren't so bucked!
In 1955, I fell in love, the love that makes your stomach drop to your toes and your head buzz like a thousand bees. I married, and in 1957, my baby girl was born. She was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen, and I had a portrait drawn of her. I took care of my mother who had dementia as I raised my little girl, making money as a door-to-door saleswoman. I became a Christian and was active in my church, giving money to missionaries and sending Bibles overseas. God was the most important thing in my life.
My little girl grew up and my pride for her had no limits. I wanted the best for her, but I'm afraid at times I was too pushy. In my life, my regrets are many, but my heart is full of happiness for the memories I have. They are deep within my core, the memories of growing up, of times that impacted me and shook the world I knew. I know I have memories, but where are they?
My grandmother's name is Kathryn but people who knew her called her Kay. My mother put grandma's name in mine when she named me Makayla. My grandma is in me. Ever since I was little, from my first memories my grandma has been in them. She babysat me when I was a baby, and moved in with us to our small house when I was a young child. Vivid memories of her reciting the Bible with me, teaching me a Swedish hymn, and practicing my times tables are as clear as yesterday even though I was only seven.
In my eighth year of life, my family moved to the country. The new house had an apartment-style basement where my grandma could live, since she was too physically unable to live by herself. During this time, it became more and more apparent that my grandmother was not mentally stable either. She began to imagine things, hurtful things about the people she loved most, and, as a child, it was disturbing that she would think such thoughts. I would get angry at her, telling her that what she was saying was wrong and things were fine. I felt cheated out of a normal childhood because it wasn't my place to assure her that such absurd accusations were false.
The effect her confused thoughts had on me was slight in comparison to their effect on my parents. My mother's full-time job as taking care of my grandma as time passed and my grandma's decline steadily increased. My mother had this position for 10 years. The amount of stress and what she had to deal with can only be understood by another Alzheimer's caregiver.
When people would ask how grandma was, we would politely say, "She's fine." Though they were trying to be kind and act like they understood what was going on they really didn't. None of my friends knew what it was like to live with a grandparent who saw nonexistent people outside the window at night. I can imagine they wondered why I gave them a funny look when they said, "Aw, that's so nice you always get to be around your grandma! I bet it's fun!"
With all the problems my grandma caused, it was easy to view her with distaste. All I knew was that she was a burden to my family. She was the reason we couldn't go on vacation and why one parent always had to stay home. She was the reason for the yelling and the family problems. She was the reason I couldn't have friends over and the cause of the "old people smell" wafting up from the basement.
Periodically, she would accidently fall and have to go to the hospital then on to the nursing home for rehabilitation for a few months. Those months came as relief to my household. My mother would visit her every day at the nursing home and I couldn't understand why. She had to take care of her all the time, so why was she so obsessed about seeing her? This came as an irritation to me, and when it was time for my grandma to come back home I looked to her return with dread.
One day when I turned down my mom's offer to go see my grandma in the nursing home she said, "What if your grandchildren never go see you?" This hit hard, and was painful. It made me wonder what my life would be like if I was in my grandma's situation; she was a woman who had lived her whole life with dreams like me. My grandma had been playful once, she ran and screamed, laughed, loved, was frightened, made mistakes, felt dread, had moments of courage, and sacrificed her time to take care of her mother just like mine was doing. Now, she was at the last pages of her life and she couldn't remember enough to savor them. Her final days were stripped from her by a disease that takes what is most precious to us. Our memories.
How ashamed I am when I reflect back on how I viewed my grandma. She was just like me once, and I certainly don't want to imagine my final days in a nursing home like my grandma where she now permanently resides. My stomach turns with dread to think I could have an end void of recollection, without knowing my loved ones and the children I spent years loving and rearing. My reaction to the inconvenience my grandma put on my family was normal for a child. I was young and immature, and it was a difficult situation for us. Yet, if I had stopped and thought about Kathryn as a person and not a burden, perhaps I would have treated her differently. Oh I was patient, I loved her and was kind, but I had an inner resentment towards her I can see now.
From such a horrible disease that took years away from my family, I learned that my view of others wasn't right. I had always thought about other people selfishly, asking what I could gain from them instead of what I could give. When my mother visits my grandma even though she took care of her for so long, I realize now it's honorable. My mother's dedication is so great that she wants to serve her mom the best that she can. My mom knows it is the right thing to do, and it's what we are called to do as children. Alzheimer's taught me loyalty to your family, and painstaking dedication.
Also, Alzheimer's taught me sensitivity and empathy. By seeing someone so helpless and in constant need of assistance for as long as I did, I learned that it is okay to be in need. It is okay to ask for help because you can't do everything on your own. I have become more sensitive to my needs and the needs of others. When someone needs help, I have learned to put myself in their place or look at my grandma and consider what it would be like to be in those situations.
When I think about my grandma, my mind travels back to Depression-era Iowa to a farm owned by Swedish immigrants with four children. I think about the girl who had big plans for her life just like I do. A girl who wanted to be loved like I do, and a girl who gave herself to others like I want to. When I grow old, I want to be cared for but not as a burden. She always knew that's how we felt, and she wasn't deserving of feeling that way. I urge those who know people with Alzheimer's to treat them with as much dignity as the next person. They have conquered life's battles like you and me. Kathryn was a conqueror. She was my grandma, the one who was like me.
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