I believe Alzheimer’s is the cruelest of thieves. The insidious quiet with which it comes upon a person, the way it robs a person of her past, leaving her present so muddied that it’s impossible to have any clarity for the future.
Equally cruel is the capriciousness with which it steals only some memories. My grandmother, diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 2001, does not remember she has been divorced for 40 years. That she has four children. That she no longer lives in Pasadena. But. Ask her to do a cheer she created in 1938 as captain of the cheerleading squad at Beaumont High School? She’ll launch into it without hesitation. Go it, Purple! Go it, Purple! She will still repeat, verbatim, something her housekeeper said fifty years ago, when speaking about the lovable chaos children create: “Miss Hattie, kids is a mess! They just goes on and be’s theyselves.” And, she still knows the joy of a man’s attention and affection; she will nudge my mother, then nod to the man beside my mother, saying, “Don’t let that hunky man out of your sight, or he might decide to come home with me!” That man is my father, the man with whom she has butted heads for 40 years.
Of course, she still remembers Hollywood, the town that beckoned, cajoled, and finally pulled her from Beaumont, Texas. I have a photo of my grandmother, age 24, posed in a director’s chair, her elegant dancer’s legs crossed, her pencil skirt and pumps classic and classy, with Humphrey Bogart smoking a cigarette in the director’s chair beside her. Her lovely mouth is lipsticked and open in a laugh as she flirts, innocently, with this icon. Alzheimer’s has not stolen this memory. Not yet.
My grandmother is still beautiful: rich brown eyes, hardly a gray hair, just plumper around the middle, with soft wrinkles covering her face, throat and hands. She still flirts with her caretakers, does a fair bit of Texas-meanmouthing, (a sign of affection, she has always said), and makes loving jokes about the goofball nature of her family. She doesn’t remember that each Christmas, she was the one who donned real deer antlers, strapped to her head with a huge red velvet bow.
And she no longer knows me. When I last visited, her orange-red lipstick was smeared across her face and blouse. She could simply chit-chat about the birds outside her window, how nice sunshine felt on her shoulders, how she wished she could remember where she parked her car. Apparently, she needs to do some grocery shopping.
I believe Alzheimer’s is the cruelest of thieves for we cannot be fully ourselves without our memory—and our memories. But I find small comfort in that, if asked, my grandmother could still pull her favorite cheer from the yet-unscathed part of her brain, calling Go it Purple! Go it Purple!, her fist pumping the air, her seventeen-year-old self smiling under the warmth of an East Texas sun.