One day my grandfather and I were spending some time together. I was riding my bike thru the orchard between our houses. It was a beautiful day to be outside and my grandmother never allowed us kids to play inside the house much if the weather permitted it. I didn’t have a care in the world and I was a very happy child. Grandpa and I were singing and laughing as usual. Grandpa happened to notice that the seat on my bike needed adjusting and the chain could use a little oil. So he grabbed my bike and we walked over under the shade tree. Like usual, he couldn’t pass up an opportunity to tinker with something.
After a few moments of watching my grandpa stare at my bike with a confused look on his face, I finally asked him what was wrong. He turned to look at me with saddened eyes and tried explaining that he forgot where his pliers were. I reached into the usual pocket that he always kept them in, “Here ya go grandpa, they were in your pocket.” As I handed him the pliers. After a few more moments of confusion, my grandpa being the proud man that he is, laughed it off and went to tinkering with my bike again. I watched as I always did, ready to fetch him a tool he needed from the garage or refill his coffee cup when I could see the white of the cup at the bottom. After a few moments, he stood and walked toward the garage, I followed close behind him as always, skipping and singing. Suddenly my grandpa paused, confusion struck his face once again. I studied him, worried that he might be ill, he simply shrugged and said that he forgot where he was going. I asked him if we needed to go sit under the shade tree, afraid that he might be getting too hot. He decided that was a good idea and I fetched the oil can from the garage thinking that perhaps that may have been what he was after. When I returned to his side, he smiled and thanked me for reading his mind. Great minds do think alike, one of grandpa’s sayings that I muttered back to him. He finished tinkering with my bike and I rode it around the yard for him a couple times to test drive it for him. When things finally reached his approval, we parted ways for dinner.
I never thought about that day again, until I was much older. My parents had since split up and I was no longer living next door to my best friend. In fact, I rarely ever got to see them much anymore. I was traveling back and forth between my parents’ houses and my father had moved to another town with his new wife. Which left my grandparents alone for the first time in nearly 40 years. Time passed quickly and when I was fourteen I decided to live with my father to attend a better school. That is when we received a phone call that would change our lives from that moment on.
My grandmother called, my grandpa had been to see the doctor a few weeks prior and his test results had just come back. I could hear grandma’s voice thru the receiver from across the room, she was hysterical, and she had no idea what she was going to do. The doctors had told her that grandpa was showing several signs and symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease. I collapsed, at fourteen I didn’t really know much about the disease, I had never been around anyone with the disease, but I knew from grandma’s reaction that it wasn’t a good thing. I had no idea what it would entail. I hoped there was a cure or just some medicine that he could take to make it go away. So I did what any teenager would do at that age, I began researching the topic online. It turns out Alzheimer’s Disease was becoming more and more common, there was no known cure, and eventually this disease would cause my grandpa to forget even the simplest of tasks, such as breathing. My grandpa would forget how to breathe? This information tore me apart from the inside out. Grandpa was always the man I looked up to, my hero, my best friend, how could I ever face the world without him?
I continued researching and at the time, there wasn’t a lot of information on the subject. Alzheimer’s disease affects the brain, proteins form tangles of hard deposits throughout the brain. These hard deposits eventually affect the hippocampus, a part of the brain that stores memories, and spreads throughout the brain, eventually shrinking the brain tissue. The earliest sign of Alzheimer’s disease is memory loss. (1) Upon reading that my mind wandered back to the day with the bicycle. I had missed the early warning signs, I had dismissed them simply as heat exhaustion. The doctors did state that my grandpa had probably been showing small signs for five to seven years prior to his diagnosis.
My grandmother was no longer able to give grandpa the care he needed, she was having a hard time just taking care of her own illness. She had experienced a stroke herself and health wise it was taking a toll on her physical abilities. The Alzheimer’s disease had already affected my grandpa’s driving abilities and as a result, he no longer had a license. Since my grandmother never needed to learn how to drive because grandpa was always with her, he always took her places she needed to go, it was making it difficult to get groceries and usual errands. My father decided the best thing to do was to sell the farm and move them closer so that he could keep an eye on them both. I was excited, finally some good news, I was going to be within walking distance of my grandparents once again. Things were going to finally return to normal and I was going to be grandpa’s girl once again. I knew that if they moved closer I would get to spend more time with them.
Finally, my grandparents had arrived, it was a little sad to see the house I grew up in and everything that held all my childhood memories get sold but I knew it was worth it to have them close again. I spent as much time with them as possible. The doctors had suggested that I take my grandpa on walks to calm his stress, he didn’t take to the transition from country life to living in town too well. Everything had changed for him. He no longer had his garage to tinker in, a garden to till or plant, or a road grater to run. For the first time in his life, he had time on his hands. You could tell that the proud man that used to stand before me was having an inner struggle with himself. He knew that he was losing his memories, he would mention it from time to time, saying that he felt he was going crazy. He had good days, the days that we could go on a long walk and talk about mechanics, his dog Bear, or my school and music. Grandpa had always taken an interest in my music talents. He was the reason I learned to sing and dance, so he was always my inspiration growing up. He helped me cope with stage fright once by telling me, ‘that sometimes the things we fear the most, are generally the things that are most worthwhile.” I believe for the most part he was right about that. On occasion I would bring my clarinet over and play him a tune. No matter how many times I told him it was a clarinet, he always called it my Flute. So eventually just to humor him, I learned to play the flute. He would sit in his recliner and slap his leg or clap his hands along the beat. We spent many days just singing like we always did. I’m pretty sure It drove my grandma crazy, she wasn’t used to us spending so much time inside the house.
He also had bad days. Those days were the hardest on the family, emotionally and physically challenging. Sometimes we would start off on one of our walks and halfway down to our normal turn around spot, grandpa would begin to panic, he had no idea where we were and he had no idea how to get home. I remember a certain time that he had stopped, looked at me angrily and said, “Where in the Hell are we?” When I would explain that we were on the road by the house he would argue with me and start walking in the wrong direction. We were gone longer than normal and I knew my grandma had started to worry, but eventually grandpa would give in and say, “Well, I guess you know where you are going,” and when I would promise him that I knew the way home he would trust me. Finally, we made our way back toward the house, stopping a few times to reassure him that I knew the way. That was one of the last few walks we ever took together…..