The last time I saw my grandfather was through the glass windows of his Los Angeles home. My sister had both arms extended, easing him into the car from his wheelchair. I stood frozen inside the house, watching, unsure of where my place in this picture was. In the same way the audience is separated from the characters in a movie by the glass of the TV screen. It is fitting, then, that my fondest memories of my grandfather revolve around time spent in front of another screen, my television.
When my grandfather would babysit me and got tired of chasing after a hyperactive child, he would pop a video in the VCR — always the same one, “The Sound of Music.” I never complained; our mutual love of musicals, Julie Andrews and nuns twirling on Austrian mountains made for a quick consensus.I only have foggy recollections of these moments with my grandfather because our movie dates took place nearly a decade ago, and a child’s undeveloped brain isn’t ideal for retaining such memories. Ironically, where my memory picks up, his trails off, resembling a fogged mirror: I would wipe away the steam, only for my grandfather to come and fog it up again.
My grandfather was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s just as I was entering tweenhood. And, although I still don’t fully understand the disease, I was consumed by the possibility that a person could forget the very things that made him who he was: What is a person, if not his experiences and memories?
It goes back to the nature versus nurture debate, but it’s slightly modified. Human nature runs deep within every person, but it is only a part of the recipe that makes up a personality. It is the experiences, and the lessons learned along the way, that truly define an individual. Without the recollection of past memories, we are reduced to young children who lack the wisdom gained from experience.
It is also the memories I shared with him — mornings spent making buttermilk pancakes, road trips to Disneyland — that defined our relationship. Without the groundwork of our shared experiences, there was no glue to maintain our connection. Memories define individuals just as much as they define their friendships.
When my grandfather set out on the inevitable path of aging — where his slowly hunching exterior matched his brain’s fading capabilities, physical deterioration coupled with mental deterioration — I felt our once-tight bond breaking apart.
Alzheimer’s is the pinnacle of human fallibility, the eventual forgetting of all it is that makes us ourselves. The path of Alzheimer’s is especially horrific because it is fully visible; no brambles or tall hedges can distort its inevitable destination: a total lapse in both mental and physical memory. Optimism doesn’t stand a chance under circumstances in which the only comfort (and discomfort) is knowing what the future holds.
Years passed — Alzheimer’s has a way of stretching itself out, like a worn rubber band — and my grandfather worsened every day. Seeing the writing on the wall, we rushed to the 24-hour care home where he was living. We brought him back to his real home and sat in the kitchen silently, with him unable to speak more than a few words at a time and us suffering the same disability out of sadness. Instead of talking, we sang. We sang “Do-Re-Mi,” “Sixteen Going on Seventeen” and “Edelweiss” in our best falsettos, hiding our sadness under prolonged choruses of makeshift lyrics. I kept my distance, though, fearful of the shell of my grandfather, which I was scared to come too close to, like an infant wary of a stranger.
I dwelled on the mutual not-knowing, how neither of us recognized the other any longer. I thought that all there was to our relationship were the memories we shared. I later realized how off-base this presumption was, because some ties transcend even memories. Alzheimer’s is one of the most feared mental ailments for the way it targets what, as humans, we hold most dear. It forces us to dwell on the lost memories, rather than living in the here and now, savoring the moments in the present.
He passed away two months after the visit, and I felt pangs of guilt churn in my stomach. I sang “Edelweiss” at the funeral and felt myself transported to those idyllic afternoons of my childhood spent in front of the TV with my grandpa. As I plunked out the final chords on the piano, the memories — which I had iced over in an attempt to distance myself from my grandfather and the disease that turned him into a stranger — began to thaw.
Only when I began focusing on the memories themselves — the bits and pieces I was lucky enough to retain — did I come to terms with my grandfather’s passing. Instead of dwelling on the fear of forgetting and how the lack of memory affected our relationship, I shifted my focus to the beauty of remembering. And with that revelation, I was able to say, so long, farewell, avedazen to my grandfather.
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