In memory of Faye Johnson
My grandmother passed away three weeks ago, after a 10 year battle with Alzheimer's. It's a struggle now for all of us to accept that she's gone, although, in a sense, she's been gone for a long, long time.
During the spring of my sophomore year of high school, my parents began noticing my grandmother displaying some strange behavior. My grandfather passed away five years earlier, and my parents convinced my grandmother to sell the farm because it was too much for her to maintain. She moved into a smaller, quaint house with a nice garden so she can continue her gardening she loved so much. She was also closer to a city. However, my parents still remained extremely concerned about her odd behavior, now becoming more frequent. I received my driver's license in February that year, and by May, my parents had asked if I would like to go stay with her for the summer to help her around the house and drive her where she needed to go.
What a sight we must have been – an elderly lady with the beginnings of dementia and a nervous 16 year old scooting around town in her Cadillac. We laughed and we watched countless Shirley Temple movies; her favorite. I cooked for her with herbs from her own garden, and she cooked for me the fried eggs I loved so much from her little cast iron skillet.
I rolled her thinning hair in curlers every night (the small pink plastic ones), and in the morning, I would take them out and brush her hair out. I would do her makeup and pick out her outfits. She let me go to the mall as much as I wanted, as long as she tagged along. We'd browse and browse for hours, looking at everything and nothing all at once and nibbling on food court pretzels and ice cream. In the twilight hours, we liked to sit outside after dinner, watching fireflies and sitting in comfortable silence.
I frequently dragged out her huge war album, filled front to back with newspaper clippings from World War II. She would tell me countless stories. As the summer wore on, the stories began to get holes and become intertwined with other stories. Sometimes she would stare at the clippings in silence, as if lost in the past, or trying desperately to remember.
She loved porcelain dolls, and we both collected them. She would buy me one for Christmas. I loved to go to her house and look at hers. My grandmother was, on the inside, a sweet little girl who loved Shirley Temple, The Wizard of Oz, porcelain dolls, and sweet treats, especially pecan pie. On the outside, she was a firm professional RN who served forty years as a neonatal nurse, bringing struggling little lives into the world.
After that summer, I went back to high school. I graduated in 2000 and began the hectic whirlwind that is college and young adulthood. As my grandmother declined, my life spiraled onward. I joined the Navy after 9/11 and had to move to Norfolk, Va. It was around this time that my grandmother began forgetting close loved ones' names.
I have my own children now. On my last visit with my grandmother during Christmas this past year, my young children stared at her crippled body and vacant eyes in wonder, and I began to hurt inside. I was sad that my children would never know what a beautiful, sparkling woman she was. I was pregnant with my son at the time, and he was never able to meet his great-grandmother. And I was ashamed, ashamed that I had become so absorbed in my own life that I had not been with her more often during her last years here with us.
My father called and told me that she was not doing well on a Saturday. My heart fell. I asked my husband, who is in the military, what was the soonest date he could get off work and he said one week, or the coming Friday. I called my dad back and told him we would be there late Friday night. His words were optimistic, but his voice was not.
I remained pensive all week as I packed our bags for the weekend. On Friday morning, I called Dad to let him know we were going to be there late that night, but he had to tell me then that it was too late; she had passed away the night before.
I leaned back in my desk chair and felt the air rush out of me. I had failed her and failed myself in not being there to say goodbye to her – to a woman who had given so much to me and everyone around her. I had failed to give my children the opportunity to say goodbye, and I had failed to be with my mother during such a hard time.
I let myself cry for a moment after hanging up with Dad. Then we packed the van and began driving. As I looked at her casket the next day, a petite silver box adorned with the most delicate, pink blossoms, I felt a peace radiating in the air. Her long fight was done, and it was selfish of me to feel sorry for myself for not being able to have her here any longer. Her body is now young and lithe again, and her mind is once again her own. She is walking with her Lord and her dear love, my granddaddy, and she is finally free of the earthly bondage that was Alzheimer's.
Alzheimer's is a terrifying and horrific disease, more so than I ever thought before it hit so close to home. I'm walking in September, but I hope in my daily walk I can make those around me more aware of what families like mine and people like my grandmother have faced and will face in the future unless a cure is found. For one less mother or grandmother, for one less husband or wife, for one less grandfather or father, I will walk. I will at the very least make sure my children know her as I knew her and make sure her memory isn't lost.