Grandpa excelled as an sportsman. He had a keen eye and would point out things in the tops of trees or in the back of a field at a great distance that I could never see. He was an excellent shot and terrific hunter of large and small game. He was one of those intuitive fisherman and had the trophies to prove it. He was a fantastic golfer and had plaques made for achieving two “holes-in-one” in the same week. He was incredible with a sling shot and could swim like Johnny Weissmuller. He worked hard and his life wasn’t easy. Born in Tennessee his family moved to Detroit for more opportunity when he was a young boy. His parents weren’t the most dependable kind. They often left his sister and him to fend for themselves. I remember once when he was asked about what it was like to live through The Great Depression, and his response was that they were so poor they didn’t notice a difference. As an adolescent, the streets of Detroit were his playground. He told me of playing “cops and robbers” with his friends and rolling down the now historic stairs of the Fisher Theater after he would fake getting shot. When he grew old enough he took a job as a cab driver. He would get his fares done early so he could have the car for personal use and drive wherever he wanted- mostly pool halls. He met, fell in love with and married my grandmother. Apparently they were quite the duo winning dance contests for the jitterbug and the such. We really didn’t hear much about all of that. You see, not too long after taking their wedding vows they were invited to a roadside tent revival. They accepted Jesus into their hearts and felt a peace and love they had never experienced before. My grandpa told me how shortly thereafter he was at the 19th hole with some friends. He was drinking his usual beverage that he said tasted like water when he felt this new found peace start to leave- and it scared him. He asked God right then and there that if He would give him back that feeling he would never drink again. He dedicated his life to God and his family. Grandma and grandpa both got jobs in one of Detroit’s booming manufacturing opportunities. They were great providers. They bought a house outside of the city to raise their two daughters, two nieces, nephew and take care of grandma’s mother. Grandpa became a bible teacher at their local church. He wasn’t perfect, but it was clear that he loved God, he loved his family and he wanted to give them better than the experiences he had lived. He said those days with his house full of kids were the best times of his life.
When grandma got sick with dementia, it was hard to watch. Not because she would forget things or regularly repeat herself or ask the same questions over and over. It was hard to watch grandpa. He wanted her to remember. Maybe he got tired of giving the same answers. Maybe he would get embarrassed, for her sake, in front of company. I think mostly he wanted her to get better. The night she went into the hospital for her heart, I drove just over 2 hours home from college to see her. She was sitting up, talking and doing great. I remember telling her I loved her and that she would be going home soon. I couldn’t believe it when I got the phone call that she had suffered ventricular fibrillation during the night and passed. My mom, aunt and grandpa went through the routine of making arrangements. The next year would have marked their 50th wedding anniversary. I’ll never forget my grandpa’s sweet words to me at the funeral, “She was a good woman, I didn’t deserve her” he said.
It hadn’t been a year since grandma had passed and I knew grandpa was lonely. Owen and I had recently gotten engaged, it was the perfect reason to stop over for a visit. Grandpa was happy to see us, but I could tell he was out of sorts. He had the television remote in his hand and was frustrated. I asked him what the matter was and he answered with anger that “Someone has been messing with those wires.” What wires, I questioned and asked him if he had other visitors. The wires behind the TV he explained, and no he hadn’t had any recent visitors. It really didn’t make sense. I asked him who was messing with the wires, and he changed his story to an animal must have gotten in and messed with his wires. Since there was no sign of any animal being in the house, I assured him that that couldn’t be the case and told him Owen would take a look. I figured a wire had gotten loose and disrupted his service. I mean, technology is confusing even for me. When Owen moved the TV set away from the wall, we were all shocked to see that the wall was blackened around the outlet. Thank God there wasn’t a house fire! I told grandpa we had to unplug everything and we would need someone to come out to fix the electrical. He seemed a little dazed and confused, and I knew something was wrong. After our visit was over, I called my mom right away to let her know what had happened. “Something is wrong with grandpa” I told her, “he needs to get checked out.”
He had always been a sharp man. The kind of guy who could quote poems, riddles, stories and Bible passages without missing a word. He was the employee who was awarded $2000 for an innovative idea that would save Chrysler a fortune. Grandpa was a self sufficient person who always seemed confident in who he was and what he was about. The same guy who turned down a supervisor promotion to remain an inspector, because he knew what it meant. No, his weeknights and weekends were for hunting, fishing, tinkering in his garage and going to church. It wasn’t very long after our visit that he was diagnosed with early stages of Alzheimer’s. We all understood, himself included that it wasn’t safe for him to live alone. My grandpa, aunt, and mother saved a few personal treasured items, allowed the grandchildren to take any keepsakes, and kept what my grandfather would need. Then they contacted an estate sale company and put the house up for sale. A plan was set for grandpa to move into a first floor bedroom with my parents.
He had mostly good days at first. He could drive and go out to eat if he wanted to, his last bit of independence. Slowly he showed more and more signs of his disease. He would come home with 10 cans of the same baked beans because he couldn’t think of what else to buy at the grocery store. He would get frustrated and irritable. He was angry with himself for not remembering, and he would often take it out on his family members. Alzheimer’s has a way of making you suspicious on top of forgetful, and he started regularly accusing my sister of taking his belongings such as electric shavers and slippers when he had himself misplaced them. At doctor’s appointments, although clever, his answers became more evident:
“Who are these people?” the doc asked referring to my aunt and mother.
“Relatives” my grandpa answered.
“What kind or relatives?” the doctor prodded further.
“The good kind.” my grandpa replied.
He could no longer remember that they were his daughters. And so it went, some days worse than others. Some days we could cope with humor, like when it took him 20 minutes to baby-step/shuffle from the dining room into the living room. When he arrived he looked up at all of us watching TV and asked “Now what?” Some moments were frightening, like when there was a large crash in the middle of the night. He had pulled out a drawer of silverware that had dropped to the floor. He was just getting his tools he explained. Night wanderings had become more common and my teenage sister had a dead bolt installed on her door. She didn’t feel comfortable with the thought of grandpa walking into her room in the middle of the night. I couldn’t blame her. My parents had alarms installed on the doors after they were awakened to the police pounding on the door one morning at around 2 am. Thankfully they had found my grandpa walking down the road, and in a moment of precious lucidity he could offer to them my dad’s name.
My mother tried to keep him with her as long as she could. They paid my cousin and a family friend to be caretakers and help him with his hygiene when he could no longer remember how, not even when prompted. But it was only a matter of time when we were no longer able to take care of all of his round the clock needs. My mother and aunt found a comfortable adult foster care home with a 24 hour nurse and care he required just minutes away from their houses. They visited him daily, even though he didn’t know. As anyone with personal experience will tell you, the signature not-knowing is the curse and the blessing of the disease. It is the tormenting reality that the family members and friends have to come to terms with and accept. They have to watch their loved one become a shell of their former self, a person that resembles someone they knew very well. At the same time it is the only relief- to know when the Alzheimer’s has fully taken over, the infected person doesn’t seem to have any realization. And you pray that it’s true, that they don’t on any level know the depths of what they are going through.
I was with him early in the day of the night he died- my mother, sister, aunt, cousins and me. When I was told he passed I felt relieved to know he was finally at peace. He went to be with his Lord, with my grandma and many family members that had gone before. He was home and he had his memories. I didn’t attend his funeral services, I continued on a planned trip to Europe. In truth, I knew he was in a better place… and I had said my goodbye to grandpa a long time ago.