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The Blessing of Alzheimer's

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“Now tell me, Micah, how is track season going for you this year?”

I smile at my Grandpa across the white, round table in his backyard and say, “I just told you about that, Grandpa. Do you remember?”

“Oh, that’s right! What’s going on with my mind these days? I guess there’s only so much room up here.” He taps his bald head three times with his forefinger, laughs, and I join him.

Then I tell him for the second time on this sun-drenched spring afternoon about running the hurdles, and how much I like it. He smiles when I tell him I’ve won a few races, frowns when I tell him I’ve lost a few as well, and when we finish, my Grandpa toasts me with his lemonade and tells me how proud he is of me, and that he loves me.

For the next 15 minutes we chat about my mom and dad, his wife (and my grandma) how he’s not swimming down at the YMCA anymore—but can’t remember why he stopped—and how green his back lawn is looking.

Then he leans forward, his eyes bright, and he takes my hand in his. “Tell me, Micah, how are you doing in track this year?” As he squeezes my hand tight, tears fill his blue-gray eyes. “I’ll bet anything you’re a star.” The tears spill onto his cheeks. “Yep, they’re lucky to have you, right? I’m so proud of you.”

I smile at him as wide as I know how, and begin to tell him again.

Alzheimer’s did a funny thing to my grandpa. I want to tell you about it, but first let me give you a little background so you’ll understand the significance of how he changed.

My grandpa grew up in West Seattle as an only child, had an extremely difficult childhood, joined the Navy at 19, and never returned home. But the scars of his early years went with him. He built a shell around himself to keep his heart from being hurt again. He learned how to block any emotions from getting in, and he learned how to keep them from getting out. And he learned how not to cry.

My grandpa was honorable to all, worked extremely hard to provide for my grandma, my dad and my aunt. But saying I love you was a challenge for him. He would say, “You’re the best in my book,” and, “You’re #1 in my mind,” and when I told him I loved him, he responded with pats on the shoulder and big smiles, but expressing what was really going on deep inside wasn’t as easy.

Then the Alzheimer’s came.

It progressed slowly at first, and we didn’t notice the profound change in Grandpa until Thanksgiving Day, a year and a half after he’d been diagnosed. After our traditional prayer, my grandpa didn’t let go of my hand on his right, or my dad’s hand on his left.

“You know something? I don’t know what I’d do without all of you. You’re so special to me. So, so special. All of you are such a gift from God, and you’re what I’m most thankful for today.”

Tears welled up in my grandpa’s eyes first, but the other nine of us around that table joined him within seconds. It was the first time I’d heard him speak with such tenderness and love.
After that, in the following months and years, the rest of the shell cracked, then sloughed off until there was nothing left but a tender, compassionate, funny, playful man. A man no one could keep from falling in love with.

And his inhibitions? Gone! He started going up to strangers and engaging them in conversation like they were long lost friends. Laughter constantly poured out of his mouth. He poked fun at himself, and teased others with the gentlest of words. Every holiday meal became a celebration of life and each other.

There was a freedom that grew in him that I believe most of us long for. He didn’t care what others thought. He didn’t worry about saying the wrong things at the wrong times. He was completely, utterly himself in every moment and it made it hard to keep a grin off my face when I was with him. And it made me want to be like him.

The transformation my grandpa went through has changed me forever. I don’t look at people the same way anymore. Now when I meet someone who is a bit gruff, or seems closed off, I don’t judge them. Because I can’t see what’s underneath the surface. I don’t know the pain they’ve been through that has caused them to build walls around their heart, so I look for the good, the joy, the brightness, and the tenderness that is floating deep inside them. Because I believe it’s in there. Sometimes I can see it. I think anyone can if they’ll take the time to find it.

I was also changed by how my grandma cared for him during the years my grandpa’s mind was slipping away. At dinner parties she was always there to fill in the blanks, to finish a story when my grandpa couldn’t. At the grocery store, when he couldn’t remember that he loved Hershey’s Chocolate syrup on his ice cream, she gently reminded him. She made his life as normal as was possible. My grandma seamlessly guided him from day to day as questions he knew the answer to on Monday vanished by the time Friday arrived.

When he woke up at 2 a.m. four nights in a row, not knowing where he was or who he was, she talked him through it, comforted him, and reassured him that it would be all right. And then in the morning, she would make his scrambled eggs with a touch of cheddar cheese, and English muffins, and strong coffee and tell him how much she loved him—even though he wouldn’t remember the comment two minutes later.

My grandma taught me that love is not a feeling but a commitment. They vowed on their wedding day to love each other in sickness and in health. Maybe she didn’t understand what she was promising—how could she at 21 years old? But she lived out her promise anyway. People said she should put him in a home. She never considered it. There’s no gold medal for doing what my grandma did. No parades or interviews on TV. But there should be because I’ll remember her example of selfless love long after the latest movie star or athlete fades from my mind.

I realize “The Blessing of Alzheimer’s” is a strange title for an essay. And please understand, it was devastating to watch my grandpa’s memories slowly slip away. It ripped at all of us to see my grandpa stolen from us by this insidious disease, and when he breathed his last, we all broke down.

But it was also an incredible gift to me and the rest of my family. It allowed us to see, and celebrate, and get to know the fascinating, wonderful, incredibly loving man who had been hidden for all those years. Alzheimer’s released him, and he burst out and danced with us, loved us with abandon and showed us a freedom I want to live from every day for the rest of my life.

Originally published: June 24, 2014
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