My grandmother was a kindly woman. She grew up in a frontier town in Alaska, the daughter of
a photographer. She lived simply, and
spent the majority of her waking hours figuring out how to stay warm. Much to her delight, her mother eventually
moved to San Francisco,
where she was able to thaw out and bloom.
She went on to marry a charismatic business man (one of the
early founders of Technicolor Films) and had 6 children, the first of whom was
autistic. It was a great challenge
taking care of all those kids, with her husband away on business much of the
time. And there were no special services
for children with autism then. So it
came as no surprise when my grandmother seemed a little forgetful and frazzled. But that forgetfulness was not so innocent as
it turns out.
Memory lapses grew into more advanced confusion, as her
children noticed that she was becoming unreliable. She would forget to pick them up from school,
couldn’t remember where they were going next, and didn’t recall what they had
told her only moments prior. My
grandmother had early onset Alzheimer’s disease – and it would take her on a
path of no return.
By the time I was old enough to know my grandmother she was
being cared for by home health aids. She
was still extremely sweet and gentle, and could have short conversations that
were interesting and engaging, but she had no idea who I was, or why we were
speaking. Still, her Victorian
upbringing caused her to be extremely well mannered – never letting on that she
secretly wondered why this “nice young girl” (a perfect stranger) was spending
time with her in her house.
But the strangest part of grandma’s journey with Alzheimer’s
was that it took her on a reverse tour of her former life. She seemed to be reliving each day that had
had the most emotional impact on her – in descending chronological order. So that some weeks she believed that each day
was her 60th birthday… and then she’d move on to each day being her
58th birthday, and so on… But the most heart-wrenching span of weeks
were when she thought it was the day of her husband’s death. She wept all day long, reliving the
experience. We would ask her why she was
crying, and she’d look at us incredulously, “Well, don’t you know that Kay died
today?” Our lack of appreciating that
obvious fact added to her extreme loneliness… as if she had lost her husband
and no one else cared or noticed. We
would try to dissuade her of that notion, reminding her of the actual date and
who each of us was. But alas, the
neurons that housed her emotions seemed to outnumber those that ordered her
memories, and so only time could change her of her perception of reality.
We all watched grandma deteriorate over the years, being
dragged backwards through time by some invisible force, verbalizing her
experiences as she relived them. It was
a kind of bizarre way to learn about her life – through the eyes of a woman who
told old stories as if they were currently occurring.
But eventually the stories ceased, and she regressed to a
non-verbal state. Her mind had finished
its story telling long before her body was ready to let go.
Grandma lived until the age of 96, and passed away
peacefully in her sleep. I can only hope
that she was dreaming of pleasant events in her early childhood when she
slipped into the ether – a baby in a shadow of memory.This post originally appeared on Dr. Val’s blog at RevolutionHealth.com.