The Things You’ll Never Remember, but the Times I Won’t Forget

May 3, 2011
Jean Langham is my grandma. We know her as “Grandma Jean”. She was an energetic, very social, loving, and very classy woman. A beautiful person inside and out would be the best way to describe her. I’ve never met anyone who could say one bad thing about her. Being a stay-at-home mom was her full time job. She has twin daughters, my aunt Barb, and my mom, Beth, and also a son, my uncle David. My grandpa, John, made a living working at the family business Langham Funeral Home each day.

Grandma Jean was a very social woman. She and her friends were always very close. She hung out with a group that they called “The Club”, which consisted of a bunch of her girlfriends. The “Club Girls” were a big part of her life while my mom, aunt and uncle were growing up. Unfortunately, though getting together with them for drinks a few nights a week soon found my grandma dealing with alcoholism. From what my mom and aunt have told me, Grandma Jean’s alcoholism got way out of hand. As kids, they can remember her sitting on the phone for hours at night. Just sitting there, chatting away with her friends, drinking a whole twelve pack of beer in one sitting. When my mom, aunt, and uncle would go to give her a kiss goodnight, her famous line was, “Oh hang on a second girls… Night honey”, she would give them a kiss and off she would send them to bed. Grandma Jean drank heavily even after me, my brothers, and cousins were born. We didn’t know it, though. We were too young to understand. Don’t get me wrong, my grandma wasn’t just some drunk who sat home all day and did nothing. She would go through times when she would be in control of her alcoholism, and then she would flare up again.

From the day I was born, we had something special. I was the first grandchild born to my Grandma Jean and Papa John. As if being the first grandchild wasn’t special enough, I decided to arrive on Father’s Day of 1995, which was also my grandparent’s twenty-ninth wedding anniversary. You could say it was a pretty big day for everyone!

Growing up, I lived across the street from my grandparents. Grandma Jean and I spent a lot of time together. She would watch me everyday after pre-school while my Mom and Dad were at work. I remember the most fun times we would have. As a woman in her early fifties, Grandma Jean was a very active person. From spending the day together, to our slumber parties and going shopping, we were always doing something with each other. Grandma Jean always had Campbell’s Chicken Noodle soup at her house, and only she could make it the best. We’d share it for lunch almost every single day if we didn’t meet Papa out somewhere. When we would have slumber parties we would push my mom and aunt’s old twin beds together to make one huge bed, and then go have a Klondike bar with Papa. I would do anything to relive those days just once more.

By the time I was seven, it was 2001. I noticed something very different about my grandma, but I couldn’t figure out what it was. We knew each other extremely well, and I was sure something wasn’t right.

Grandma Jean was only fifty-five years old when she had very apparent symptoms of dementia. Everyone was in denial and didn’t want to believe anything. She was so young. Could her drinking have led her to act like this? As of this day, we still don’t know the answer.
That following Christmas, in 2002, everyone in our family went to Christmas Eve mass at four o’clock. Like all kids, my brothers, cousins and I couldn’t wait to get up to Grandma and Papa’s house to open presents and see Santa. Without a doubt we were the most fidgety kids in the whole church, constantly getting shushed by our parents. Finally, mass was let out, and we shortly arrived at Grandma and Papa’s. We got there, and found that the house was barely decorated, there was no food cooked, and the presents weren’t wrapped. It really didn’t even look like Christmas. Everyone knew that Grandma always had the house very festive for Christmas. The tree was always decorated so pretty with icicle ornaments, and underneath the tree you would find what seemed to be miles of presents. It truly was incredible. But this year, nothing was there.

Was she drunk and just forgot? Or was this the result of developing the disease of Alzheimer’s, a progressive neurologic disease of the brain that leads to the irreversible loss of neurons and dementia. This was the eye opener where my family realized that something was really wrong.

The year of 2003 was the beginning of the long road ahead of us. My family took Grandma Jean to a neurologist to get an idea about what was going on. Looking back now, the doctor’s reports read that she already had been in four car accidents by that year, ending in the result of her losing her license. Grandma Jean scored a nineteen out of thirty on a memory test she took that year as well. A few months later, she took the test again and scored a twenty-five. We either think that she maybe had stopped drinking for a while, or perhaps it was just a better moment. Nobody knows.

To this day, I remember the first time I ever noticed the problem. It was a spring day, and the sun had finally decided to come out from hiding behind the clouds for so long. I was sitting in my living room talking on the phone with Grandma. She said to me, “Look at how sunny it is out today!” I told her how I was excited to go play on my scooter outside. She then asked me how school was, and then said “Wow, look how sunny it is outside today!” Confused, I said to her, “Grandma, you just said that.” She replied to me saying “I did? No I didn’t.” This was strange to me. Why did she repeat herself within five minutes?

As soon as I hung up the phone with my grandma, I immediately asked my mom why she had repeated herself, and then why didn’t she even remember doing it?

Later on that night, my parents sat us down and told me and two of my younger brothers, Jack and Alex, news that would change my life. My youngest brother, Ross was only a baby at the time. We all sat down and my parents explained in the best way three kids under the age of eight would understand, “Grandma Jean has a disease called Alzheimer’s,” they said. “It’s when her brain doesn’t remember everything like yours does. She’s going to sometimes forget to do things, and she might forget that she already said something to you. Don’t worry because she’s still Grandma, you just might have to help her out with things sometimes, okay?” Not totally understanding the whole concept of this “memory-loss” they had just explained to us, we still nodded our heads.

As time went on, my brothers, cousins, and I soon realized what our parents were talking about. Grandma Jean was still the fun, happy self that we’ve always known her to be, but she started to forget a lot of things. She would come over to our house with bright blue eye shadow on, and makeup caked on her face that was five shades too dark. She would talk about how she went somewhere with her parents, who passed many years ago, and would try calling them on the phone. She would have clothes layered over each other, and her size ten frame soon expanded to a size 2X in women’s. Slowly things began to change, and her memory began to worsen.

For a long amount of time, things seemed to progress pretty slowly. For about five years straight, Grandma Jean was very happy and sweet. She was fun to be around. She would love to sing and was capable of doing certain things like folding laundry or wash dishes. But then again, if you asked her if she was married, she couldn’t tell you.

Although it was hard to see this disease make her memory worsen and worsen, we all kept telling ourselves how lucky we were that she was still happy. We’ve heard of how people with Alzheimer’s can be very violent and mean. We were extremely lucky to have her for that long being so happy. But all good things must come to an end…

In the summer of 2009, Grandma Jean’s loving personality swung to a mean violent alter ego. She would hit my family members, cuss uncontrollably, and say things that she really didn’t mean. It was so hard watching her do this to all of the people she loved, without even knowing it. When I had a personal encounter with this behavior, it really took me back. I was asleep, lying in the sun one day at my aunts with my iPod in my ears. Completely oblivious to the world, I was woken up to Grandma Jean cussing and yelling at me and shaking my lounge chair up and down. Why she was doing this I had no idea! She then walked in the house and began to throw the couch pillows. It really made me realize how terrible Alzheimer’s really is. About a month later, she was in the car with my aunt, and she pulled my aunt’s head by her hair, while she was driving, so far back that my aunt could no longer see the road. Once again, this was for no reason. Completely scared and not knowing what else to do, my aunt called up her doctor and admitted my grandma into the psychiatric ward in Auburn Memorial Hospital to adjust her medicine.

That incident made my family come to the point in life that is the most difficult thing for any family to do…placing my grandma in a living center. Caring for Grandma Jean at home was no longer an option, and we now had to find a placement home for her were she, and the people around her, were safe.

This process took quite awhile. Facilities wouldn’t take her because of how young and active she was. They were looking for elderly people with Alzheimer’s that wouldn’t be walking around everywhere and things of that nature, not someone who was sixty-two. Grandma Jean was in the hospital until a few days after the first of the New Year. Not having her spending Christmas with everyone that year was the strangest feeling I’ve ever felt. The day just didn’t feel complete, and was very emotional for me. I have to say the best Christmas present I got that year was being able to go visit her at the hospital, because the staff usually doesn’t allow kids in that ward. I didn’t recognize her when I first saw her. From seeing her a few times a week to not at all was very strange.

Grandma Jean is now living in a special Alzheimer’s unit at Demay Living Center in Newark, New York. The distance of a little over an hour away prevents me from seeing her as often as I would like to, but we are working on moving her closer. Although I try my best to be strong and to hide the pain I feel, it really is terrible when your grandma doesn’t even recognize you anymore. Every time I visit her my heart slides up to my throat as I hold back tears. Words can not explain how sad it is to see how much a disease can destroy one person, let alone a whole group of people that live with her. Even though there are easy days and not so easy days, this is what it is and we can’t change it. Therefore, I tell myself to make the best out of it. Out of every bad, there is good. Wanting to go into the medical field when I am older, I hope to maybe develop a study to create a cure for Alzheimer’s. I also hope to write a book someday for others, especially kids, to be able to relate to and find comfort in while dealing with this disease.

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