Gypsy's Travels

Monday, October 22, 2007

"Alzheimer's: Forgetting Piece by Piece"

As a military family, we were always on the move, but we always made time to visit my Dad’s parents. On one visit, when I was talking to my Grandmother, she became very serious and asked me to please hurry and study medicine so I could find out what was happening in her head. When I tried to pursue the subject, she refused any further conversation about it. She obviously had some inkling there was a problem.

My Granddaddy invited us all for dinner one evening and Grandmother cooked. There was plenty for two, if you were not very hungry, but barely enough for 11 of us to have a taste-testing. I think that is when my dad knew there was a real problem. He took us aside, asked us to be patient, and promised to take us out for hamburgers after dinner, but seven hungry, young children didn’t understand what was happening. I am not sure anyone understood what was happening. If the military thought you needed a family or parents, they would have issued them. The Air Force moved us to California.

When Daddy retired and we were getting ready to move back to Texas from California, it was decided my sister would go early and stay with my grandparents to help out until the rest of the family arrived. I was to accompany her since I would be starting college classes about that time. Plane travel was not common then, so we took the bus and Granddaddy picked us up at the station. Grandmother greeted us when we arrived at the house, but she became increasingly upset when she saw the luggage. She did not recall the arrangements everyone had agreed to and demanded that my sister leave. I was confused, my sister and Grandfather were devastated. My sister had always been Grandmother’s favorite and we could not reconcile the anger. Fortunately, a cousin took my sister in until the rest of the family arrived.

Grandmother would leave to drive to the grocery store and disappear for hours. She didn’t recall where she had been. The police stopped her a couple of times for driving on the wrong side of the road. Granddaddy had to take her car keys away from her. She became paranoid and didn’t recognize us much of the time. Normally sweet, quiet, and retiring, Grandmother became more belligerent. The doctor diagnosed her problems as “hardening of the arteries” and told us to put her in a nursing home. It was believed arteries got clogged and cut off oxygen to the brain. We didn’t know about Alzheimer’s at that time.

You don’t die from Alzheimer’s. It just erodes your mind and taxes your loved ones. It is diagnosed by the exclusion of other possibilities. Susan Gourley (Fort Wayne, IN) has made a quilt for the nationwide quilt exhibit called "Alzheimer's: Forgetting Piece by Piece." It is one of 52 quilts in a traveling exhibit to interpret Alzheimer's in some way. The quilts’ journey began in August 2006 and will continue until July 2009 with all proceeds benefiting Alzheimer's research.

Susan’s quilt includes some poignant questions any mother would ask if
faced with the loss of the most precious memories of motherhood:
To my dear child,
What if I can not remember the soft touch of your hand?

What happens when I do not know your smile?

What if I do not know my face as I see it in the mirror?
What about when there are no memories for the day as the sun says its final goodbye?
What if I can not remember that I loved the warm smell of the top of your head?
What if I will never remember I held you in my arms as you slept?
What if I never again have the chance to remember who I was and who you were to me?
What if I can not remember that I loved you?

I wonder if my Grandmother was troubled by questions like these. I wonder if I will ask these questions one day.


  1. This was beautiful, while terrifying. Alzheimer's is one of my biggest fears, partly because of the questions you listed and because there would be many more questions, I imagine. But as a mother of two children who are now 6 years old and 10 months old, these questions ring loud in my mind and force tears to my eyes. To forget all the memories of my life would be a shame, yes ... but to forget my children and all the memories that I have made with them would be truly tragic.

  2. I wonder if the greter tragedy would be having the children forget all those memories. One more reason for us to write our memoirs.
    Thank you for visiting, Brandi. I appreciate the thoughtful response.


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