Alzheimer’s and Strong Women

About a month ago, I spoke with my grandmother on the phone. We compared the weather in Las Vegas, Nevada and Gainesville, Georgia. She asked about my dogs. I asked about her needlepoint and crocheting. I marveled (for the millionth time) at how much I recognized the familiar voice of my mother in the way she said words like “well” and “now” and also how she back-ended every negative comment with a positive.

I casually mentioned that I might be visiting my hometown of Georgia over a certain span of dates. At that, a very serious tone crept into her voice and she said flatly and matter-of-factly, “Let me get a pen.” Then I listened to her footsteps as they moved into her galley kitchen (with the electric range that has cooked a thousand grilled cheeses for me) and opened the doors of her cupboard (that has always housed a dozen-or-so church-published fundraiser cookbooks.) She found the sought-after pen and asked me again what week I might be visiting. I reconfirmed but appended a firm maybe on the dates.

“It’s still up in the air,” I said. “I probably won’t know for certain until a week or so before.”

I could hear her scribbling. She reconfirmed the dates again and she reconfirmed the word, “Maybe.”

“Yes,” I said. “Maybe.”

She breathed the letters as she wrote them on her calendar, a big two-foot by three-foot monthly planner that has always hung on the wall adjacent to her oven. “M. A. Y. B. E.,” she mumbled as she wrote them next to what I imagined was a drawn straight line and the accompanying text that indicated my possible visit.

“Yes,” I said again. “Maybe. I’ll probably know if I’m coming about a week before.”

I could hear her scribbling again. She was writing on the week before the dates of my possible visit. She was spelling out something like, “Heather will maybe know if she’s visiting by this date.”

“Ok!” she proclaimed when all the writing on the calendar was done. “I’ve got it on my calendar. I won’t forget,” she reassured me. At those words, I won’t forget, I felt something go weak and wounded inside of me.

“Ok, Memaw. I love you so much. I’ll talk to you later,” and we ended our phone call.

My memaw, Carolyn, she’s in the early stages of Alzheimer’s. As of now, the thief of a disease has only robbed her short-term memory–little things like whether or not she went to the grocery store this morning or whether or not she was supposed to pick up my younger cousin from school. To combat the inevitable, she wields a calendar and a pen like weapons, fighting the war that’s raging in her head. She lashes back with written words, reminding herself of the things she can no longer trust to herself. I can’t begin to tell you how much that simple act of strength and defiance and planned combattance moves me. My Memaw is a fighter. She passed that on to her daughter, who passed that on to me.

The intruder in her mind will get better and craftier at taking things. It’s sticking its fingers into cracks and crevices that it couldn’t reach before. It will keep on taking and taking until there isn’t anything left. When she’s forgotten every person and every event that happened in her life, that murderous criminal will make her heart forget how to beat and her lungs forget how to breathe. It’s the worst kind of thief. The worst kind.

Just yesterday I got a phone call from her. There was something suspicious and jumpy about the way she said “Well hello!” and then rushed on with a few minutes worth of nervous chatter. Finally, after what I could tell was a miserable eternity to her, she found the courage to ask what she called about.

Before I tell you the question she actually asked, let me tell you the question she meant to ask.

If she were less scared of showing her mistakes, if she weren’t so scared of having her loved-ones acknowledge what we already know, she would have said: I wrote down a few scribbles on my calendar, but I can’t remember exactly what they mean. I’ve written dates that you are visiting, but then I have the word maybe. And then above that, I’ve got another date marked that says maybe. Why did I write maybe twice? I’m trying so hard to make sense of it. Is there something I’m supposed to know by this date, but I don’t? Was I supposed to call you? Were you supposed to call me? Are you spending this whole week at my house, or are you just stopping by for a day? Can you please help me figure this out?

But instead she just takes a deep breath, clears her throat, and says in a way that is obviously meant to sound very casual but instead sounds stiff and even arrogant (which she isn’t), “I was just wondering if you knew whether or not you would be visiting on,” (she pauses to look at the calendar and then thinks better of what she’s saying and starts over.) “Just wondering if you were still planning to visit sometime soon. I know we talked about it…”

She’s completely forgotten the phone call we had a month ago. She’s only got those scribbles on her calendar.

I rush in to save her dignity. I recount what we spoke about: all the details of the visit, why I was going to be in town, why I’d been uncertain about the trip, how long I had intended to stay with her. And then I tell her that the trip is off. I won’t be coming in town at all. I’ve had to postpone until the end of the summer.

She sounds incredibly disappointed as she tells me through a genuine smile how that is absolutely ok and she will see me whenever it works out and she knew it was a maybe anyway.

“Because I had wrote down maybe,” she says.

When we hang up the phone, I sit deflated on my couch and allow myself five minutes of staring at nothing and unsuccessfully fighting tears.

I don’t want Carolyn to forget me.

I know how Alzheimer’s works. She’s eventually going to forget that I’ve grown up. I’ll walk into her home in Georgia and someone will say, “Heather is here” and she will turn the corner and see a tall woman in her thirties who only sort of resembles the gangly grinning little girl in her memory. I’ll have children of my own, her great-grandchildren, but we’ll have to reintroduce them every time they meet. This will probably annoy my theoretical children. They will have never met the Carolyn that I knew, and as such, they will never have the opportunity to love her the same way. They will only know a dying old woman.

But I’ll remember who she really was.

When she was nineteen, she was a strong woman. After her first husband began beating her senseless, she packed her bags, moved out and got a menial paying job to support herself. She walked alone into a county court house, past the judging eyes of a half dozen gossiping church ladies, and did something that must have broken her tender heart. She filed for divorce.

In her late forties, she was a strong woman. Her gynecologist returned to the exam room and said he had some bad news. She wasn’t going through menopause. She was instead pregnant. Would she like to go ahead and have the abortion today? He’d never seen a woman of her age have a healthy baby. They were always “slow.” She kindly said, “No, thank you.” He objected, and she shook her head. “Sir, I wasn’t planning on having a baby at this age, but I don’t want an abortion. If this baby is ‘slow’, then I’ll be the proud fifty-year-old mother of a slow baby.”

In her late seventies, when Alzheimer’s picked a fight with her, she was a strong woman. She battled back with a pen and a calendar. And in so many other bits of life in between, she’s been a strong woman. I’ll remember that.

I’ll remember.

Even when she doesn’t.

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