When Minds Die

The memory that stands out the most to me, when I put myself in the position of remembering my grandfather, are all the times he would bring me Snicker’s chocolate bars from some shop I can’t remember. The second isn’t a memory, but it is a vague sensation, an emotion felt at some point as a child, of my grandfather laughing over perhaps some bratty outburst of mine. I can remember the smell of gasoline when he would warm up his Mercedes in the open air garage, I can remember his patience when he was teaching me the Lord’s Prayer when I was five years old. The stories I heard of him as I grew older were just complimentary to the man I knew for such a brief period of time. Sadly, I can’t say I knew my grandfather as well as I would have liked. I was very, very young when my mother explained to me what Alzheimer’s was and that Papa Mingo, as we called him, had it.

And from then on, I can’t say I really got to know him, because, given the nature of the disease, he was starting to forget himself. He’d forget why he went to a room. He’d forget names, so sometimes he’d call me my brother’s name. He’d forget important moments in his life that had meant so much to him. And little by little, habits that had cemented his presence and his breath into my memory started to stop. He stopped buying me Snickers. He stopped laughing at my outbursts. He stopped warming up his Mercedes in the garage, stopped reminding me to pray before bed. And the warm eyes that were so characteristic of his bright face soon became confused and lost. They’d dart around, sometimes scared, most of the times squinted, straining as he tried to remember what the disease had already chewed up.

He ended up in a nursing home, unwillingly lying on a bed as Alzheimer’s had made itself comfortable inside of him, warm-then-confused eyes now blank and searching. His speech began to drawl, crawl at a snail’s pace until it became gibberish. We would visit him often, at least once or twice a week. As a teenager, my mind wasn’t necessarily where it should have been. But I will never, ever, forget one thing that never left Papa Mingo’s face despite the gray fog he ended up in: he smiled every single time until he no longer could. His smile was iconic in the family; it was hearty and full and genuine. It was real and it’d coax a smile out of you, too. And it didn’t stop until that gobbling fog, among other health problems, entered its final stages. Despite my teenage brain focused on other things, less important things, it stuck with me. And I’ve realized as an adult that his smile, and my mother’s smile, were one and the same, and their ability to find humor in unfortunate situations was the same.

My mother was a gorgeous woman with the most beautiful salt and pepper hair you’ll ever see in your life (at least, I thought so). She was the very picture of an elegant woman, poised in every moment of her life. She never lost the ability to smile and laugh, to have fun. Even as she worked herself to the bone in several hospitals as a doctor, she’d always have such a witty sense of humor. She was fiery and bold, never afraid to do the right thing. She was a powerhouse of a human being, and I owe everything that I am to her. Like all adults that gain mature perspectives as they grow, I wish I had treated her better. I miss her every day, and I miss that smile that never left her even in the throes of fighting one of the most soul-crushing illnesses in the world.

My mother was a breast cancer survivor. During the fateful year where it came back again, my mother fought it tooth and nail. I would often sleep in the same bed as her during some nights, nights where maybe she spent too much time in the hospital or had received chemotherapy in silence, and would rub her back when the pain became too much. Watching the strong, tough and sharp woman I had grown up to see wither and weaken, lose weight, lose her beautiful salt and pepper hair, watch her lovely tan become gaunt, marked me in ways I still struggle to articulate. Even now, I find it increasingly difficult to properly convey what I was watching, and how it made me feel other than destroyed. I feel there could be a more eloquent term out there, but at the same time, there is no better fitting word.

And could you believe that before she had to be hospitalized, she would still find humor and have fun? She would still make jokes and hum The Godfather theme as she showered. She’d still frequently crave to eat lobster and scold me for not studying. She’d still sit me down and reiterate the importance of studying in university and becoming an independent and wise woman, so that no man (or woman) could come into my life and destroy it, forcing me to stay in a potentially abusive cycle just to survive. “And above all, never compromise your dignity,” she hammered over and over. She had grace even as she faced the gaze of death every single day. She smiled when she was sad, she smiled when she was angry, she smiled when the fear ate her heart. When the chemo made her weak, when cancer made her body bend, when her lungs were filling up, she smiled and made jokes.

Near the end of her life, my mother’s cancer spread throughout her body. That meant that her brain was also being ravaged by tumors that had grown into it, severely damaging her memory, cognitive functioning, and even her speech patterns. She began to speak the same way my grandfather was at the time, jumbled and unintelligible, gibberish that sounded nothing like the Spanish that we speak. And soon, she found it difficult to remember any of us. She could scarcely remember her mother, my grandmother. She barely remembered my older brother and me. She was being consumed by the same deep gray fog that clouded the memories of my grandfather, though the origin and its technicalities were vastly different. And she, too, began to lose the parts and pieces of her puzzle that made her who she was.

My grandfather never really knew my mother died. He was advanced in his Alzheimer’s, and when she passed away, he continued to smile that same pleasantly confused smile, completely unaware that one of his daughters was no longer with him, and wouldn’t return to hold his hand and see how he was doing. Because at this point, what was left within his mind was a blank slate that could not be written on, could not be drawn on. For him, he had no daughters or a son. There was nothing there that held any form of memory, any piece of who he was because it would be gone in an instant. The man that was tall as a tree and built like a tank was thin and bony as he had forgotten how to eat.

It struck me then as it strikes me now, how truly fascinating the human mind is. When I was a child, I believed that we were infinite in terms of our mind. I believed that something like Alzheimer wasn’t real, just a sort of spell one would read about in old horror novels where the characters were dissected and had to find a potion quickly. I truly believed in the power of the human being. We were incorruptible. We were power. So to find myself as a teenager witnessing disease overtake the power of two people, I felt powerless myself. I became terrified. The thought of one day slowly losing everything that makes me who I am is horrifying. My dreams, my thoughts, my hopes, my loves, my losses, my memories, my regrets, my mistakes, my angers, my fears, my sadness, my smiles, my humor. All of that could be simply wiped away in an instant should Alzheimer’s one day decide to knock on my chamber door like the raven in Poe’s story, peering into my memories and burning them as he says “Nevermore.”

The final days of my grandfather were tumultuous. In and out of hospitals, he was tubed and resuscitated several times to try and keep him alive. I saw it as cruelty. He was a shell, a husk, broken on the bed he made his home. He didn’t speak, barely moved his eyes, didn’t eat or drink. He had emphysema as well so he had a horrible cough and an aching chest. He was being kept alive out of a sense of duty from part of the well-meaning doctors that did everything they could for him and prepared us for the inevitable. Walking into the hospital rooms day and night when he was there, my grandmother spending the afternoons while I spent the mornings, watching the way his body was regressing just as far back as his mind, was a startling reminder of my own humanity and my own mortality. I often sat there and wondered what crossed his mind, if anything ever did at all. Maybe he watched his life like a movie. Maybe the memories struggled to spark. Or maybe there simply was nothing there.

My grandmother saw his passing as a large relief, a freedom from the suffering that Alzheimer’s had wrought upon his body. She said the same thing when my mother died, released from the pain cancer had caused. “It’s better that they are at peace now than to keep living in agony,” is what she’d say with tears in her eyes as she looked out the window to think back on them. I agreed with her then and I agree with her now. But it gave me food for thought, of which I’m still chewing on to this day.

I’ve witnessed death since I was a child. I’ve been to funerals, I’ve been to nursing homes, I’ve been to hospitals. I kissed my mother on the cheek one final time before my father received the call from my aunt that night. I gazed at my grandfather’s body one last time before his body decided to finally let him have mercy. I bid my grandmother her last bendición before I left the nursing home, where she had also been suffering from onsets of dementia, and received the call the next morning. I’ve watched the backs of some of the most wonderful people, and I’ve seen them fall. And all of them had one thing in common, a pattern that I picked up not long ago before I started to write this.

I watched them all lose who they were. Whether it was to Alzheimer’s, or cancer, or a combination of health issues that piled up with dementia being the detonator, it didn’t matter. I witnessed the degradation of personalities, the erasure of dreams and mistakes, the startling collapse of who they were. And what fascinates me, what motivates me, is precisely the same power of the human mind I so often believed in as a child. Where many would argue that cancer reduced my mother to a shell of her former self, I would counter-argue that it wasn’t the case; in my mind, in my memories, she was still the strong, tough, fiery single mother who was a fantastic doctor and did everything for her children. I believe that my grandfather was still the exact same jovial tree of a man that bought me Snicker’s and wanted me to learn the Lord’s Prayer. I would say that my grandmother was still the same feisty, loud, hearty woman she was before her passing.

I could make those arguments and I could say those things simply because they still exist in my memories. Alzheimer’s did not immediately erase the print of my grandfather, cancer did not put out the fire of my mother, and dementia didn’t snuff out the still fresh memories of my grandmother’s laugh. They cling to my memories like wet clothes to skin. I still have my memories, I still have everything that makes me who I am. And as I write this piece, with no point other than to perhaps share my thoughts on what makes us human, I remembered many beautiful things about what made them who they were, and what makes me who I am. They were tabula rasa to their physiology, but they are novellas to me.

But, in all honesty, if I ever do end up with the core of my being slowly being stripped away, I can only hope that, like all of them, I can still crack jokes until I can’t do it anymore.

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