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“Hey, Mom!” I call from the doorway of the restaurant to my mother’s head, bobbing over the top of the car as she leans out of her driver’s seat; a huge smile is planted on her cheeks. I look back through the window of the restaurant, waving to my dad, where he sits with his wife. I mouth a farewell, and he smiles back, a half-effort grin. That’s the thing I hate about divorce—every time the kid is trucked back and forth between parents, there’s a good bye. Too many good byes, an amount no one should have to suffer. Good byes break your heart a little bit each time. Watching people walk away from you does something to people.
Running around to her side of the car, I hug my mom lightly, scanning her clothes and stating, “What the heck, Mom? It’s Easter, why are you wearing all black? It’s a celebratory day.”
She chuckles, and sticks her leg back into the car. “It’s all I had at Grandpop’s house. Sit wherever you can. It’s a little…crowded.”
“Holy crap, Mom. What is all this stuff?” Easter baskets—for me, I presume—scatter the backseat, along with two suitcases, an array of clothes, jelly beans fitted into the crevices of the seats, and my older cousin, Laura, in her best white dress and snazzy electric blue heels from New York. “Hey!” I dive into the car, hugging her shoulders.
She smiles, a gleaming white row of pearls, and I briefly wonder if she’s had work on her teeth. My attention is swiftly diverted, however, when I see who’s sitting in the front seat, next to my mom.
“Hey, Grammy,” My voice unintentionally softens, like I don’t want to hurt her with a loud tone—she’s that fragile. The car’s occupants grow silent; the atmosphere is quiet and still. I don’t like it.
We all wait for my grandmother to respond, patiently, and after a moment, she realizes she’s been spoken to. “Oh, hi, darling.” Her voice is a whisper; I suppose speaking at a normal volume is too much effort. She doesn’t look up at me, just keeps staring at the dashboard. I soon realize she used the term of endearment because she can’t recall my name, and I gently touch her shoulder.
“I’m all strapped in here, Julie.” She points to her seatbelt, cocking her head around to look at me. I flinch, quickly retracting my hand from her soft skin.
Julie is my older cousin, Laura’s sister. I am not Julie. I am Jenna. I am Jenna. I have a flashing urge to slap my grandma, tell her to snap out of it, she’s hurting everyone with this disease. She’s killing our family.
I’ve always thought that song “That’s Not My Name” by the Ting Tings is the precise definition of Alzheimer’s. Every time this victim of Alzheimer’s, my grandma, calls me a different name, I have an urge to break out in that song, bobbing my head back and forth in tune to the beat until she realizes her mistake. “Oh!” She would say, “My mistake! I’m sorry I’ve troubled you all with this stupid disease for so long. Now I’m back, let’s dance!” My grandma and I would link hands and swing around in circles until we laughed so hard our stomachs hurt, singing that cheerful pop song all the while. The Alzheimer’s would just pop out of her, and leave our family. My grandma would be my grandma again.
Then again, I’ve never really known Grammy without Alzheimer’s. She was officially diagnosed with it when I was four; my earliest memory with her was of us reading a story about a bunny in the big arm chair in my grandparents’ living room. From then on, her memory only worsened, and my memories I have of her lessen. I never knew Grammy, the volunteer for young, underprivileged girls; Grammy, the honest and hardworking wife; Grammy, the best mother any one could ask for. I only know Grammy, the absentminded woman who seemed to be wandering and lost in her own empty mind.
I settle into the car seat, Laura situated beside me, squished over due to obscene amounts of clothes hanging by the window. “How was your weekend, Mom?” I ask in a desperate, pathetic attempt to break the silence.
“Mmm…,” She looks at Grammy, whom she’s been taking care of all weekend. I wonder how it is, babysitting the woman who used to feed you, change your diaper, and drive you to cheerleading practice. I imagine helping my mom go to the bathroom or changing my mom’s clothes, as she does with Grammy, and I get knots in my stomach. No one aspires to be their mother’s caretaker when they grow up; it’s a job thrust upon you, a true test of love and dedication. “It was a good day today.”
I realize she is speaking of Grammy’s condition and not her own and nod. She turns around in her seat and the car wavers a bit on the road. “How was your weekend in New York with Vicky and Jenny?”
“I went with Julia and Veronica, Mom.” I nuzzle one iPod headphone into my ear, low volume, so that I can still talk to my mom.
“Mmm…Of course, of course. Mommy, why isn’t your seatbelt on?” Mom turns her body, one hand on the wheel, and reaches with her free hand across to where Grammy’s limp seatbelt lies across her belly, unhooked. The car swerves between lanes. “Crap!” A car honks, and my mom turns back around, two hands firmly on the wheel. “Laura, do you mind? Just help Mom with her seatbelt.”
Laura reaches up to Grammy and swiftly hooks her in. “There you go, Gram. Gotta keep you safe.” My mom mumbles a thank you and fixes her eyes on the road.
Laura turns to me, the clothes pressing against her back. “So, New York, Jenna? You know, when I was in sixth grade, Grammy and Pop Pop took me to a Rockettes show and out to dinner—a whole weekend in New York. Do you remember that, Grammy?”
Silence. There is an awkward pause as Laura waits for Grammy to reply, then continues her story.
“Anyways, I was so excited about the Rockettes show—the dancing was so cool!—that when we got back to our hotel, I tried to do a dance. I jumped up on the bed and kicked my leg up as high as I could, and ended up kicking the wall, breaking my ankle.” She chuckles and shakes her head. “You remember that, Gram?”
Silence. Why do they even try anymore? I wonder to myself. She is so far gone; I can sense the emptiness in her eyes, in the way she talks. This Alzheimer’s has kidnapped our grandma, and hard as our family may try, there will never be enough money or scientific discoveries, however significant towards the cure of Alzheimer’s to get her back.
“Gram?” Laura says, leaning up and touching her wrist.
“Oh, yeah. I remember that.” Grammy says, obviously having no idea what we are referring to. Mom grabs her own mother’s wrinkled hand and holds it between them, resting on the armrest; mother and daughter. I wonder how in such times like these, where Grammy can’t remember our names, or our faces, or the stories we vainly try to help her recall, how love can prevail. Her love is raw—stripped of the memories and recollections that build on love and make a relationship stronger. Grammy’s love is either based on the moment—the person is taking care of her, so therefore she loves them—or from habit—she knows she loves them, and she knows she loved them before the disease; therefore, she loves them. Which kind of love is better, I wonder—raw or the kind based on growth?
There is no growth in Alzheimer’s. Only deterioration.
This woman is not my grandmother. This woman is just a shell, a person of the exact likeness of my grandmother, but my grammy’s supposed lively spirit is long gone. There are whispers of its existence in this shell, trapped in this hollow container, but they will never develop into my grandmother again. I believe my grandma’s spirit is already waiting in heaven—she’s just waiting for her body to catch up.
“Hey, Jenna?” I hear my mom’s voice from the front seat, clouded and distant, blocked by my iPod music and thoughts.
I flick my headphone from my ear with a thwap of my finger. “Yes, Mother?” Teenage angst drips from my words, and I smile at my successful acting job, proven victorious by my mother’s slight downturn of the corners of her lips.
“We’re gonna drop Grammy and Laura off at Pop Pop’s house, pick up my luggage, and head back home. ‘Kay?” She waves out the window to a man in a truck who had allowed her to pass in front of him in the lane.
“Is that okay, Jenna?”
“Mom, I said fine!”
“Sorry, I didn’t hear you. Speak up next time.”
I put my headphones back in my ears, this time with both ear buds in place. I note how short my temper is, and how quickly my mom was able to annoy me. The silence and emptiness from Grammy seems to radiate and reverberate throughout the car, and a knot grows in my stomach. The quiet fills the car, not at all a calming sort of quiet, but a poisonous quiet, staining our lips and keeping us silent.
Laura leans forward in her seat; the crinkle of the leather underneath her body makes us all stiffen a little bit, and we look towards her out of the corners of our eyes. “Make sure you don’t miss the turn onto Fountaindale Road, Aunt Lynne. I miss it almost every time; there’s all these trees covering the entrance now.” Mom at first remains unresponsive, and I know she’s been offended. She grew up in this house, and she knows these roads like the back of her hand. Not everyone has forgotten their memory, or so I can almost feel her wanting to say.
But being the person she is, she smiles and keeps her eyes on the road.
We swiftly turn into the curvy maze of the small neighborhood my grandparents live in, pulling in their long stretch driveway and up to the edge of their cement garage, slowing to a gliding stop. Both my mom and Laura rush to get out of the car, to help Grammy out—she has a severe knee problem, and must exit the automobile a certain way in order to keep her recovery from knee surgery on track. I stay in my seat, watching.
They are like worker bees around the Queen Bee, swarming, patting, loving, adoring, helping. Laura reaches for Grammy’s cane, while Mom stretches her mother’s wrinkled legs over the ledge of the car’s floor. Both women reach for her, grabbing her waist and hoisting her out, and I slowly step out from the car around to where my grandmother has unfolded from her position. Laura grasps Grammy’s hand, helping her to hobble to the garage door. My mom gently touches her shoulder, turning her around and hugging her a few seconds longer than usual. Saying good bye to a victim of Alzheimer’s is of the same magnitude as saying good bye on several separate occasions, because the next time you see them, you never know how much of that person will remain. You never want to leave.
I just stare, as my mother looks at me expectantly.
“Jenna,” Mom says, clearing her throat.
I stare at my grandmother—no, not my grandmother, her shell, the coffin the remnants of her tattered spirit are confined to.
You’re not my grandmother. Alzheimer’s took Grammy away.
The silence, once filled with busied movement, suddenly grows still. It is not until I feel my lips close—when did they open?—after speaking that I realize I have stated my last thought aloud. My mom stares at me, mouth dropped. Laura looks at her electric blue shoes, sickeningly bright at such a grim moment. I wait for Grammy to say something.
“Such a lovely girl,” She murmurs, patting my cheek, completely oblivious. An old woman I barely know turns around and walks away, leaving three women—one old, one young, and yet one younger—to stand aghast, and wonder where Anna Hershey now lies, because this woman hobbling in front of us is not her. Grandmother, mother, wife, friend—where are you, Anna?