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The Puzzle MAG
“I want to stay in my own house in Maine. Please, don’t make me go to Florida.” My grandmother Nanu argued from her bed. It was 7:30 in the morning; my father had just explained that they were leaving for Florida, where she lives in the winter. Dad reassured her that she loved the friendly people and warm weather.
While sitting in bed looking both defiant and nervous, Nanu effectively defended her position. If she stayed in Maine, she would be near her family; they wouldn’t have to travel; her friend Sally could move in and live with her; if the weather was bad, she would just hole up. She was thoughtful and logical, presenting a formidable argument for staying here. But, it was not possible. Nanu has Alzheimer’s, which has wiped away her short-term memory. She doesn’t recall that she has spent the last six winters in Florida. Until she arrives and sees her friends, she cannot remember it, which causes her to be reluctant to leave Maine. She reiterated, “I do not want to go to Florida. I do not know where I am going. I do not know anyone there.”
My dad patiently convinced her that he would go with her and that she would enjoy Florida. It is painful to listen to Nanu describe her desire to stay in Maine. It is her home. She has no memory of Florida, so naturally she is scared about going there. There is no easy method of conveying to Nanu that she will be okay.
During a lull in the conversation, Nanu suddenly said, “What are we arguing about?”
My father smiled and said, “I was explaining that you need to get up, so we can catch a plane to Florida.”
Nanu replied, “Which side of the argument was I on?” Instantly recognizing the absurdity of her question, she leaned back in laughter. Humor in an awkward situation has become a frequent occurrence with Nanu: she will forget something and wind up laughing at the end.
When I was young, my grandmother was active and energetic. Our biggest concern was keeping her in one place for more than 30 minutes. In the past five years her memory has progressively deteriorated. She cannot remember what you just told her, where she left her purse, or who you just introduced to her. She has acquired new habits which mystify the family, including squirreling away things in the back of closets and under beds, or taking everything out of a kitchen cabinet and placing it on the counter. She becomes frustrated when she realizes her memory problem inhibits her. Simple daily occurrences such as losing her purse epitomize the metamorphosis that has occurred.
I too have been transformed from the child I was to the person I am now. I wear dresses without crying and arguing. I do not suck my thumb, and travel without my blanket. Nanu and I have reversed our roles. When I was young, Nanu was the “adult,” the “authority,” taking my sister Kate and me to the beach, to the Goldenrod for ice cream, to feed the ducks and unfortunately, on occasion, to try on dresses. Nanu would present us with birthday that would excite us for weeks like the spacesuits she bought one year. But, now I take her on an afternoon drive or taking her to lunch at the Goldenrod. In reality, she is now the child.
It is painful to watch her become incapacitated. She has lost her independence. Nanu can remember her past abilities, but cannot perform them. It is hard for her to realize that she must rely on others.
Although at times it seems like Nanu has lost everything through Alzheimer’s, I realize that she is still very much alive. It is easy to become depressed and think back when life was easier for her. I need to be patient and forgiving. Nanu will ask me the same question five times during one meal, and each time I will honestly respond. It is no benefit to Nanu to tell her, “I just told you that.” After the question is repeated so many times, it is tempting to become frustrated, but I cannot. I must remember what Nanu has taught me: a positive attitude, patience, and an eagerness to unselfishly help others.
A mind afflicted with Alzheimer’s is like an old puzzle. Over the years we have fit the pieces together to form a clear picture. Every detail is in its proper place; every piece fits. As time goes on, some of those pieces break. Later, pieces are lost, which makes the puzzle harder to keep together. Yet, the shapes are still here and we can see what the picture was. But, as more and more of the pieces are lost, the picture on the puzzle becomes harder to decipher. Until, finally, the picture is gone. The rate the pieces disappear is a mystery. Sometimes lost pieces can be found for a while before they become lost again. There is no way of knowing how long the picture will last – a week, a month, a year, many years.
Nanu’s memory is a mystery to me. Although she is no longer the capable adult she once was, she continues to teach me. She still thinks logically and, like many with Alzheimer’s, her long-term memory is a treasure. She has never given up. She displays a positive outlook with humor as her ally. Her fascination with education, technology and travel are forever passed to each of her grandchildren. I hope that I can keep the puzzle for a long time. However, I know that there comes a time when the puzzle has too many missing pieces and the picture fades.