My grandfather (Gramps, I call him) was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s a few years ago, and since then has slowly declined in ‘mental age.’ They say that he’s now processing at the level of a 7 year-old.
Since I was about 8, I’ve spent at least a couple weeks of every summer in Lake George, New York. I have so many great memories on that lake upstate. I remember growing up, waking up before the crack of dawn every morning to wakeboard. I remember causing mischief with the other kids on Assembly Point, before they headed off to summer camp. And I remember ending every night at the camp sitting around a great big fire (drenched in mosquito spray) with my cousins. However, the thing about those summers that I remember the most is the conversations we’d have at the dinner table, with Grams and Gramps. Gramps was Einstein to me. He was a nuclear physicist (so really not that far off). I would sit listening not only to his limited stories of work (as most of it was classified), but also listening to his stories of recent travel and to his childhood stories on the lake (that weren’t too different from mine). He was and still is one of the most interesting men I know.
I don’t understand Alzheimer’s, how it wipes everything from someone. All the memories of travel, knowledge from books, association with people, it wipes everything. It’s terrifying.
I was back in Lake George again this summer after learning more about Gramp’s diagnosis, and hearing stories about it throughout the school year. Like most people facing Alzheimer’s in their family, I didn’t think it was as serious as everyone said. But from the second I arrived and saw Gramps, I knew. He wasn’t ‘Gramps.’ I wasn’t his grandson. He didn’t know who I was (and I didn’t know who he was). I pried for bits of stories, bits of the old Gramps that was buried somewhere. I started with memories, asking about his travels and the stories he used to tell about his childhood on the lake. We couldn’t get there. On walks we’d take, I’d ask simple questions. I asked, what’s your favorite place? His answer: “good space in between.” I asked about cars passing by and I thought we were getting somewhere. He replied one time, “It’s getting really different than it has been in the past.” Regardless of what he remembered though, he held the same demeanor that I knew. He had the same whimsical personality. Many Alzheimer’s patients are known for their angry tantrums, but that rarely happened with Gramps. He’s always happy, always joking, and always light hearted, even if he doesn’t know where he’s at or who he’s with.
After this summer, I look at life through a different lens, questioning what really matters (or if really anything does). If tomorrow, I forgot everything I’d ever done, what would matter? What would it matter that I won a drawing contest in elementary school (and that I still have the drawing on my dresser at home), that I won martial arts competitions (with belts of all colors lining my walls), or that I have the Key to the City of Hood River (with my last name on it spelt incorrectly)? Although I could go back to my room and see these things on top of my dresser, hung on my wall, and sitting on the shelf, I wouldn’t know the significance. They would just be objects without sentiment; an admittedly terrible drawing of flowers, insignificantly colored belts, and a gold key, all without the memories to go along with them. They’d probably be in a dump somewhere instead of proudly displayed in my room. Of course, I had these thoughts, but through them, I’ve realized what really matters.
What really matters is how we pursue our passion, and, maybe more importantly, how we interact with people along the way. Gramps is always happy because he’s always doing what he loves. He never let anything stop him. Although he’s not able to articulate his adventures, they’ve shaped him. You can tell that he continued to ski black diamonds, went skydiving, and was adamant about his annual trips to Six Flags, well into his sixties. That’s Gramps. Beyond that, you can see the effect he has on people. He’s always listening before speaking, although he’s always got great stories to tell.
The relationships we form along the path of life matter so much. It’s the one thing that, if we give proper care and attention, will never break, evaporate, or fade away. Whereas material objects will always break at some point and, passions, although important, sometimes change.
Alzheimer’s is a terrifying thing, but it poses an important question: what really matters?