It’s hard for me to watch him slip away. My mother’s father died when I was eleven and I never knew my father’s father – just that he left my grandma with five kids under the age of ten and not much more. So he’s been my “grandpa” since Matt and I started dating almost eight years ago. It’s funny – we’ve been married for almost two years now and I still have a hard time knowing what to call Matt’s parents. They’ve told me they’d like me to call them “mom” and “dad,” but I somehow can’t bring myself to do it. Since we started dating in high school, I’ve always called them “Mr. and Mrs. Frank,” but that suddenly became too formal. So if I have to, I call them Jim and Anita but mostly it’s just “Would you like anything to drink,” and lots of eye contact. I never had that problem with Grandpa.
Four years ago Grandpa went out for butter for his pancakes and was missing for more than 24 hours. A wrong turn here or there in the northwest suburbs of Chicago, the area he’s lived in for more than 40 years, had somehow gotten him all the way to Wisconsin. After that, he got the standard “dementia work-up” that revealed nothing, which meant he probably had Alzheimer’s disease. No one ever gave him that diagnosis. They just talked to his family about him as if he weren’t in the room and made him so angry that he decided he never wanted to see a doctor again. So we got him a medic alert bracelet with his name and address on it and told him he couldn’t drive anymore and that was the end of that.
Since the trip to Wisconsin, where they do have lots of good butter, there have been no further incidents. Just little things like telling the same joke over and over again and an inbility to complete a sentence without help. These are things that are easy to pretend are normal. We always play games when we get together and slowly the games we’ve been able to play have been dwindling because there are too many rules or pieces and Grandpa can’t keep it all straight. A few weeks ago we were playing a card game Grandpa had played hundreds of time s before. After three hands it was his deal. He took the cards and shuffled them and set them down on the table. We said, “Deal ’em out Grandpa – seven to each person,” as if he hadn’t done it hundreds of times before. So he picked up the deck and started laying the cards randomly on the table. We each reached out and slid ours into our general vicinity. After he had “dealt” oen to each person he again set the deck down on the table. We said, “Keep goin’ – everyone gets seven.” So he picked up the deck adn this time we pointed to the spot where he should throw the card and he did better. Then, after dealing one card to each person, he again set the deck down on the table. We eventually repeated this process until everyone had seven cards, but we had all lost something.
Until that moment I had been holding out hope that somehow Grandpa, one of the smartest and funniest men I’ve ever met, was going to escape the jaws of this horrible disease. I had hoped he’d be among the fraction of patients who respond to medication or that he’d somehow never get any worse. But with that deal, the house of denial I was living in quite comfortably came crashing down.