I sat patiently at the bench, waiting for my family to arrive. The smell of incense filled the room, overtaking dozens of flower bouquets that embellished every corner. My young cousin took hold of my hand, looking for me to say words of wisdom. I could only offer, “He wouldn’t want you to be sad, so stay strong.”
Let me tell you a story of a man. He was a refugee from the Vietnam War who toiled and struggled to deliver his 12 children to the land of the free. Years after finally reaching America, his eldest daughter gave birth to two children: my brother and me. Growing up with my grandfather, I was taught many lessons, though I did not understand at the time, and sadly, to my regret, I overlooked them.
My young years growing up in our small house seemed to pass by in a flash. I faintly remembered the kindness of my grandfather. He would often buy gifts for me from the dollar store and would feed the neighborhood strays who wandered into our home. Young and naïve, I believed he bought all these items because he was wealthy, not knowing he collected recyclables for the money.
My family arrived and I obediently followed my orders, but my eyes often strayed to what lay between the two flower columns.
Years passed by and I no longer lived with my grandparents. My mother faced health issues and my brother and I were taught to be more independent as my mother needed her rest. My Vietnamese fluency began deteriorating as I only spoke English for school. I gradually lost my ability to converse with my grandfather but he tried his hardest to strike conversations with me using simple Vietnamese terms. Because of his patience and kindness, we could still hold conversations.
After hours of praying, each person was to take a rose from a basket. I gently picked out a white rose.
Camping and traveling with my grandfather, I believed the good times would never end, but like the leaves which bloomed beautifully in the spring, eventually it would fall. I remember the chaotic day when my grandmother had a stroke. Thankfully she survived her ordeal but things were never the same. My grandfather, however, stayed strong and by her side through every step. I noticed he started forgetting simple things but I believed it to be an effect of old age; I didn’t know what he was suffering from, and like my other relatives, I focused on my grandmother’s health instead.
We formed a line, with me in front of my cousins. As I watched my relatives give my grandfather a rose, I felt a churning feeling in my heart. My grandmother passed by in tears with my mother comforting her.
As the year passed, my mother told me stories of my grandfather’s condition and even I could see the deterioration of his mind each time he visited our home. He seemed lost from touch with the present time and told us the same stories about his childhood over and over.
Gradually, his friends stopped visiting him. It was too hard for them to bear his condition. He would always tell the same stories, not knowing he already told them so many times before. Family became all he had.
I reached my grandfather, bowed with respect towards him and lightly offered him my rose. “I’ll always be your Chuot,” I whispered.
Along with my growing age, my grandfather’s condition escalated too. He was more childlike, questioning several things, forgetting the purpose of household items, having bathroom accidents, and forgetting to do simple tasks such as flushing the toilet. Worst of all, with each new visit, I watched him forget my relatives. I watched my cousins cry when he forgot them. I watched the sadness on my aunts’ faces when he asked who they were. I felt special for he still remembered me, his Chuot—his little mouse—a nickname I used to loathe in the past.
My time was approaching. My eldest uncle went up first, then my father, then my uncle-in-law, and so on. Tears were shed, tissues pulled from their boxes, and noses blown. I could hear my young cousins break down into heavy sobs as I held in my own tears. “He wouldn’t want to see me crying,” I repeated to myself.
He always tried to be helpful to his children, attempting to clean up around the house, but due to his memory loss, he often misplaced items. My family was patient at first, but with each item disappearing, it grew harder. One day, my uncle’s glasses were misplaced. My uncle’s patience crumpled as he asked my grandfather where he placed it. Though he forgot many things, my grandfather’s pride was intact. He believed his own family thought of him as a thief and he grew furious. He started to become more frustrated with his life as his condition consumed him.
My uncle motioned me to come to the front. I realized, too late, that I forgot my speech at home. I grew anxious as I made my way to the front, the clacking of my heels speeding my pulse. I was handed the microphone. With one look at my grandfather, I turned to my audience and delivered my feelings.
He finally forgot my face. I greeted him at the doorway of my home as I usually did, but this time was different. “Whose child are you?” I felt a pang in my heart but I still forced a smile and replied simply, “I am Chuot,” in hopes he would remember the nickname. To my happiness his face lit up with remembrance and he hugged me like usual but our relationship had changed. He only remembered the little girl who he bought Barbies for, not the current me.
I was complimented after the ceremony, but I didn’t feel content. My uncle-in-law walked up to me, and he, too, congratulated me, but afterwards he looked to my grandfather who lay in the distance, and said, “Your grandfather was a great man. If only more people knew about him.”
I was cleaning my closet one day when one of my stuffed animals fell on top of my head—my old friend Wolfie—a souvenir from my grandfather. My old memories of the Yellowstone trip came back. I remembered climbing to the top of Arch Canyon, only my grandfather and me since my parents were too tired to climb. Reaching the top, we viewed a breathtaking vision. The valley seemed to be painted with the colors of the sunset. I was sad to leave, but my grandfather promised we would come back in 10 years and climb it again. As I held Wolfie close, I looked at the calendar. Half a year left till our 10-year promise.
Later that week, however, I discovered our promise would never be kept. He was diagnosed with bone cancer.
That night, as my relatives dined and my cousins played together, I secluded myself in an empty room, staring at the moon outside the window. I closed my teary eyes, pictured my grandfather and promised him, “I’ll make you proud.”
My relatives traveled far to visit my grandfather in his final days. Though he had forgotten everyone, he was happy to have so much company, to always have someone holding his hand as he lay bedridden and to tell him that all those around him were his children and grandchildren. There was a time when all of us gathered around him and though he could barely create expressions, a smile peeked from his lips. I wish I could have said at that time, “Look, aren’t you proud? All of your children, all of your grandchildren, we’re successful. We have done what you have always taught us to do. We all are now medical staff, law professionals, college students, or honors students.” My grandfather had always valued education. His wish was for each of us to obtain it because to him, education opened people’s eyes and hearts.
I felt angry at the disease. Why did it take away his time? Thanks to him, we are all living happily in America. His wish had been fulfilled but he forgot us all. He wasn’t able to bathe in happiness knowing his wish had been achieved. The disease took that away.
No matter how much time passes, I will never forget my promise to him. Before I knew he had bone cancer, I made a phone call to him. At the end of the phone call I told him, “One day I will become a great doctor and help take care of you!” I may not be able to keep half of that promise now but I will strive to become a great doctor. I cannot take care of my grandfather anymore, but I will have the ability to help many others.
Let me tell you a story about a man.
Essay from the Alzheimer’s Foundation of America Teens for Alzheimer’s Awareness college scholarship competition, reprinted with permission of the Alzheimer’s Foundation of America (AFA). For more information about AFA and the Young Leaders of the AFA, visit www.alzfdn.org or www.youngleadersofafa.org.