I was visiting my grandmother in memory care on an early June afternoon. The sun was beating aggressively through the tiny windows of the facility, bouncing off the sterile white walls. There was a pervasive chemical smell in the air, and the sound of residents chattering underscored the scene. My mother and I had come to fix up her closet and make sure that she was being seen to properly. I walked up to my grandmother to hug her hello, and she stared at me with a blank smile. “I’m sorry, who are you again?” My heart sank as I considered how I was going to respond.
Ten years ago, an albino squirrel climbed a wooden fence and leaped into a concrete bird bath. My grandmother, Janice Muller, sat down and watched the squirrel, intrigued by its curiosity and adventurous nature. The squirrel returned to her backyard, and everytime she would pour a cup of coffee and watch the squirrel, whom she eventually called Harvey, play in the backyard.
Around the same time, my grandmother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.
Slowly, the disease began to steal the details of her life: what she liked, places she’d been and people she’d known. Eventually the larger details became fuzzy too: her memory of her parents, her son who lives far away and her former occupation. And with her question to me in June, her memories of her grandchildren had faded as well.
“I’m Gwynne, your youngest granddaughter.” I told my grandmother.
“I have an older brother and sister who are also your grandchildren.”
Then she asked, “is everyone doing OK?”
“Yes, they graduated from college and have jobs. I have two more years of college, then I’ll get a job.”
“OK good, it sounds like everyone is taken care of.”
For a moment my grandmother had a look of relief on her face, comforted in knowing that her grandchildren were grown up and successful. I was also comforted that even though she couldn’t remember who I was, she still wanted to know about my life and make sure that I was taken care of.
I was 8 years old when my grandmother was diagnosed with the disease that would erase me from her mind. Though I tried to imagine the feeling of slowly losing everything that was once familiar to you, my young mind couldn’t comprehend the devastating news. One thing I could comprehend was the utter despair my mother was experiencing. I was helping her organize her classroom when she had gotten the phone call from my grandfather. She got off the phone and broke down crying, and one of her colleagues took me out of the room. This is a mirror image of when my great grandparents’ lives were taken by Alzhiemer’s.
When my mother was young, my grandmother got a phone call that changed her life just as the one my mother got in school changed hers decades later. Her parents had been driving back to the United States from Onterio, and there had been an accident that had flipped their car and killed them all. My mother couldn’t comprehend her mother’s grief, just as I couldn’t comprehend my mother’s.
From the day she was diagnosed, my grandmother decided she didn’t want to waste the rest of her time mourning memories she was going to lose. She wanted to live her life to the fullest, knowing and accepting that her disease was going to progress.
With every memory erased came a new opportunity for rediscovery. When she forgot that she was an avid gardener, she got to re-experience the joy she felt when gardening and gain a new appreciation for the simplicity of it. When she forgot that she lived in memory care, she stood up at lunchtime and yelled “Where’s my wallet? I’m buying lunch for everyone!”
It’s in these moments that I begin to appreciate my grandmother for her relentlessly positive attitude. Having dealt with my own share of mental fog, due to a severe concussion at a young age and untreated attention deficit disorder, I find that I understand a little bit of the confusion she deals with on a daily basis. I become angry and frustrated with myself when mental fog prevents me from articulating what I want. I doubt my ability to reliably remember information, deadlines and important people. Worst of all, I resent myself for not doing better.
Seeing my grandmother take each day in stride puts my struggle back in perspective. It reminds me that I either can lose myself in the information I have lost, or I can accept the fact that I will make mistakes and move forward.
As I reflect, I begin to remember my grandmother before her diagnosis. She used to take my sister and me to lunch at the art museum, shopping at the mall and to children’s shows at the theatre. Even though she can no longer remember these moments, I can. Memories are finicky in this way. They can be altered, they can be fuzzy, they can fade with time or they can be stolen by a slowly progressing disease. However, a memory is given meaning by the emotions they elicit. These are not sad memories for me. These memories bring me joy because they are the remnants of the time I spent with my grandmother when I was a child.
The odds of seeing an albino squirrel are about one in 100,000. Even though Harvey the squirrel had no idea that my grandmother watched him every day, named him and cared about him doesn’t diminish the fact that those memories held meaning for my grandmother. Just like my grandmother not remembering me, doesn’t diminish the impact the memories I have of my grandmother and the impact of her influence on my life.
Seeing the strength and resolve for positivity my grandmother carries with her everyday inspires me to embrace my problems rather than fight them. She has also inspired me to look out for the albino squirrels in life–those rare moments of joy in seemingly commonplace things.