On One Hand

November 27, 2004


Filed under: Uncategorized — ononehand @ 12:41 am
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Thanksgiving was a hectic day: first my family and I drove up to my father’s parents’ home in Berthoud (a small town about 40 miles North of the Denver Metro Area), and then at three in the afternoon we drove back down to Westminster (A suburb of Denver) to be with my mom’s family for dinner.

My great Grandmother on my Dad’s side of the family is in the midst of Alzheimer’s disease. She was there at my Grandparents’ house, wandering around, oblivious and incoherent as usual. My father and aunt had gone to pick her up from the nursing home because we wanted her with us for the holiday.

Despite my great-grandmother’s condition, she still loves to talk. “I remember this time I, uh… oh… yes!” is something my great-grandmother might tell you. I’ve learned that when you’re talking to someone with Alzheimer’s disease, you have to be very in-the-moment. Hoping to hear what the poor woman is trying to tell you, you plead “Go on! What do you remember!?” but it’s already gone. “Oh, I forgot!” the old woman will say, smiling. The moment has passed, and you just have to let it go. Alzheimer’s is a sad disease, but I still think my family is lucky. Many people with Alzheimer’s are bitter, angry, and scared, making the long years very difficult for the sick person’s family. Great-grandma Shirley is, instead, in awe of the world, smiling at everyone who passes and telling people she just met how much she loves them. But the condition is hard on her daughter, my grandmother, who is terrified of getting the hereditary disease someday. You can see the frustration flash across my grandma’s eyes when my great-grandmother gets too confused. The small, bony woman with thinning hair will exclaim, “Oh, I love how you are!” grinning broadly, eyes lit up with childlike wonder. Her plump daughter, also showing her age, will shake her head solemnly, emphatically saying “terrible disease. Just terrible. Isn’t it?”

Since it’s only noon, Thanksgiving dinner is more aptly described as Thanksgiving lunch, and the winter sun is still streaming in on us through the big South-facing windows. Grandpa is talking about surgery, telling us he’s only had it three times in his life. “I had some sort of sebaceous cyst cut out here,” he says, pointing to the space behind his right ear, “and another here,” he points to his left. “And then,” he goes on, “when I was about three days old, they cut off about half of my tallywhacker!” He guffaws, pleased with his own joke, while I grin at how much it sounds like things I’ve said before. “Oh, Nick!” Grandma disapproves, but I still think it’s funny. Grandma Shirley, the one with Alzheimer’s, laughs along, but doesn’t know what she’s laughing at. “Oh, I just love this,” she tells us. “I get so lonely in the place.” She’s referring to the nursing home, where she lives in the special Alzheimer’s wing. “Nobody’s there sometimes.” We all look down with sympathy, ushering in an awkward silence. I poke at my salad, pushing a piece of limp lettuce around the plate in trails of oil and vinegar.

My grandmother pipes up to break the silence. “Angela!” she says to my sister, “Tell Lizzie (our aunt) about what you saw in the pool hall!” My sister smiles excitedly and begins her story. My sister has a new boyfriend and went to a pool hall with him a few weeks ago. She explained that on the wall of the pool hall was a picture of Clint, our cousin. Clint was Liz’s son, who died suddenly in a car accident a few years ago at age twenty-one, leaving his mother childless. I shake my head at the impeccably awful timing that put this story right in the middle of dinner. My aunt begins to cry, pushing her bite of mashed potatoes over to the side of her mouth, then reaches for her glass of water to clear herself. “Good,” my aunt whispers after swallowing, nodding her head. “I’m so glad they have a picture. That’s so sweet. Good.” Her eyes are still tearing up, but she’s smiling. Unlike the women on my mom’s side of the family, who sob sentimentally at so little as one of the kids reading a poem about being a vegetarian, my dad’s sister is very rarely emotional, so this is an unusual moment. “The picture wasn’t that good,” my sister goes on, a little too honest as she often is, explaining how Clint has a serious, angry look in his face. Grandpa calmly says “yes, that’s how they all look,” and we all laugh again, including Great-grandma Shirley, who still doesn’t have a clue what we’re laughing at. My family has suffered a few shocking deaths in the last few years and the poor old woman doesn’t understand who’s gone. “Where is that boy!?” she’ll sometimes ask, pointing at a picture of Clint or of my uncle David who died of HIV the same year Clint died. “I haven’t seen him in so long! Is he here?”



  1. Sounds like you had a rather busy day. I had my Thanksgiving in Berthoud, too- at my sisters place just south of town. My mom, her boyfriend (one of two), my sister and her husband. I left Friday to beat the return rush flying out, and because my sister’s very busy anyway at McGuckins in Boulder for the holidays.
    Last year we had guests at Thanksgiving there from my sisters’ work and neighbors, so it was a bit busier. The conversations with family always seem to range between operations and health to catching up on recent histories.
    At least your great-grandmother is vibrant, despite the alzheimers.
    I wish my other sister had come down from Billings with her family, it always livens up things because she brings up the most embarrasing childhood moments and gross references at the dinner table…

    Comment by firemaplesong — November 27, 2004 @ 9:12 pm | Reply

  2. I love reading stories about your family. They always make me wish I were there. My Great-gramma had Alzheimer’s and it was really sad. I remember one time we went and visited her and I was there with my Grandpa and she recognized him. She was like “Allan!” and he was like “Yeah, hi Mom, do you know who this is?” and he motioned to me. She answered “Your wife?” That made me sad. Not that she didn’t recognize me, but that she didn’t realize the enormous age difference between us.

    Comment by empressme — November 27, 2004 @ 10:45 pm | Reply

  3. hey matt jus checkin in on your livejournal since you posted on my oh-so-lonely wall. i have a livejournal too but i cant remember the password at all. i’m in tennessee right now and it’s the first time in 13 years that i didn’t go to nebraska for turkey. it was so weird, but i saw some family i haven’t seen in years so it all works out. we went to the grand ole opry and things like that. good memories i suppose.

    my grandma has microdegenerative disease, which is the opposite of alzheimers, i think. she will sit there and tell you the same thing over and over about 6x before you can get her to stop. this usually provides for great entertainment, but she’s also diabetic. that means she takes her insulin w/o eating, or tries to take her insulin twice because she forgot that she just took it 10 minutes ago. it’s a miracle she’s lived by herself for as long as she has. it wasn’t until recently that her condition got so bad that she had to be moved to an assisted living home. it makes me sad, she was so happy at the apartment she was at.
    anyway hope the rest of your break is good, i won’t be back in denver till tuesday. ciao

    Comment by Anonymous — November 29, 2004 @ 5:23 pm | Reply

    • whoops

      btw this is denise.. my livejournal is glover_chan but dont bother, i haven’t posted in waaay too long lol

      Comment by Anonymous — November 29, 2004 @ 5:24 pm | Reply

      • Re: whoops

        I knew it was you already because 1) I didn’t post on anybody else’s lonely wall, and 2) You’re the only one I know who goes to Nebraska for holidays.

        Tell me how Tennesee works out. Nebraska, Colorado, and Tennesee… God Bless our Red States.

        Comment by ononehand — November 29, 2004 @ 7:36 pm

  4. hearing about your grandfather’s surgery must’ve been palatable to the mind, while eating.

    about your great grandmother asking of your uncle.. that reminds me of the ‘Pieces Of April’.

    Comment by ex_unequivo — November 30, 2004 @ 4:38 am | Reply

  5. Your great-grandmother sounds beautiful to me. Alzheimer’s is sad, yes, but she seems so enlightened and pure, like all of her being and personality are still present but her thoughts are wandering.

    Comment by ezstrider — December 29, 2004 @ 6:22 am | Reply

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