For the past year I’ve watched my grandmother succumb to dementia. In truth she has full-blown Alzheimer's disease, but there’s no doubt in my mind she’d prefer the term dementia if she indeed knew what was eating her brain from the inside. She’s proper, after all, hailing from a generation that says “intestinal fortitude” instead of “guts.” Pushing well into 90 years on this good earth, my grandmother is ox-like from the neck down. Her brain, however, has lost all of its capacity to remember what happened five seconds ago.
Though it sounds cruel, I’m trying my best to forget how she is now, trying to forget how last Christmas, she asked me, “is your mummy still alive?” while my mother and I sat on either side of her. Thus, I’ve found I prefer to pull up the more pearly memories.
To my knowledge, my grandmother seemed to have few pleasures and hobbies in life. But she loved water, especially large bodies of it, in this case the Sea of Cortez on a fine holiday many, many years ago. At the sight, she became giddy, child-like. I remember with fondness how she held her Boogie Board in front of her. How she waded into the ocean and plunged into the foam, riding small wave after wave of whitewater. I may indeed be making this memory up, but an image is easily conjured of us riding a wave together at the same time. My grandmother turns to me, her head wrapped in saltwater bubbles and spray, and she laughs as wide as the beach.
The rest of the time—to my memory—she worried. Nothing seemed beyond her disquieting mind—nuclear attacks, end of the world earthquakes, impending and certain Christian persecution, whether her little daily deeds and thoughts would be reason enough to deny her a heavenly reward. She couldn’t get all this stuff out of her mind when her mind was still good. I’ve mostly forgotten this about my grandmother. I chalked it up to the fact that she might have been an albatross who had the misfortunate of being blown way too far inland.
Memory hangs by tenuous threads, locked in our network of 100 billion-plus of neurons. I’ve been given to wonder what cell or cells hold, for instance, the memory of the time I did a head-first stage dive off the Catalyst stage and no one bothered to catch me because it wasn’t that kind of show. Trying to figure out how a three-pound hunk of grey meat like the brain can contain a lifetime of memories after hitting the concrete floor of the Catalyst is like trying to understand the astrophysics of space and time. (Indeed, I saw the stars and the heavens above that night.) But I do know enough about my own bad self to know each time I’ve experienced a bit of life that passes into a memory, each time I access the memory again, it changes radically. And each time I slightly change the narrative memor,y I have just engaged in the sport of wrangling greased pigs.
My life has thus gained mythic proportions (minus the legendary, fairy-tale status) except my myth is nearly blind, each year blurrier than the last. What memory manages to rise above the muddy dose of predictability and occasional dullness that is living has to compete with the deafening now. Yet without memory—even the tarnished shreds of evidence that come barreling forth as stories from our collective lives—I wonder if life would be worth living.
My grandmother’s Alzheimer's disease has forced me to confront some assumptions about life and how to live it. I’m unable to erase the memory of last Christmas’ dinner in which my grandmother’s few thoughts spilled out like a badly scratched CD, but soon this memory, too, shall fade. Before I forget, though, I should remember her walking around my mother’s house exclaiming how she’d built and designed it so that the whole family could be together. She must have thought she was still in her home in Maine rather than California. Between this redundant claim she asked my brother’s relationship status, each time as fresh and astonished as the last. My brother was up to five girlfriends and two divorces (a slight exaggeration but not by too much, it turns out) before my grandfather finally spoke. “From a bunch of bananas,” he said, “you can only skin one banana at a time.”
My grandfather’s cryptic remark shut my brother and I up, sending a chill up my spine. This, despite how dear and diminutive my grandfather has become in his old age. That night I dreamed my grandfather was walking on a long expanse of lawn with a bowie knife that glinted in the blinding sunlight, but I can’t remember if putting this dream into a memory is true to the dream. Probably not. But it is likely the result of my brain trying to wrestle with a fresh memory.
The next morning, over breakfast, my mother talked about the night before. “I am determined not to end up like my mother,” she said. “ And if I do, I insist that I be allowed take a long walk into the mountains.” I understood her to be saying that no one should suffer the pain of watching a parent succumb to this dreadful disease. It was a loving gesture of love for her sons, but the mountaineer in me would never allow my mother to fling herself off of a large cliff. It’s not a good way to go, but it might be better than the slow demise of dementia.
Years or mere months from now, after my grandmother rests in the ground, I won’t remember what she was reiterating in her diseased state. I will, however, be left to ponder why my grandfather used the verb “skin” instead of “peel.” I suppose it doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things, but sometimes it’s the details that make all the difference. Details have a way of sticking to the memory when everything else disappears. After all, that was what my grandmother was doing, bless her heart, bless her failing brain. I just hope I can continue to amass enough blissful and fruitful details to fill my memory with goodness so that I can peel (or skin, as the case may be) away from this world into the great unmemorable darkness from which this life began.
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