Alzheimer’s Stole My Meemaw

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Each time I mention my impending vacation “back East,” the Facebook posts from my paternal relatives come rapid-fire: “I hope you’ll visit gram,” “Go see gram when you’re in town,” “Don’t forget about gram!”

 

Like I could forget about my grandmother. We are, after all, talking about the woman I call “Meemaw,” the woman who picked me up from school the day I peed on my second-grade teacher’s feet. The woman who taught me how to play cards and make whoopee pies. The woman who always had time to give a much-needed hug or tuck you into bed or make you dinner or listen to your stories. I could never forget her. But she’s forgotten me.

 

Alzheimer’s is a formal word for “hellish, slow-motion death.” In the beginning, the disease stole little things from Meemaw. She would drop stitches in her knitting and forget to fix them. She would go to the kitchen where she’d spent the past five decades preparing things like pig’s stomach and huge jars of pickled beets-n-eggs and she’d forget why she’d left the living room.

 

Eventually, the disease snatched bigger things. A few years ago, when Eva was still a little girl, I was sitting with my Meemaw on her back porch, watching our relatives swim in her pool. We were knitting together. I would cast-on for her — the woman who used to sit down and create the most beautiful, intricate little Barbie clothes without even using a pattern — and she would knit a straight line. I liked to think we were knitting scarves. It made the reality of the situation a little less depressing. I remember that, after about 30 minutes of complete silence, she turned to me and said, “They tell me I had a husband and that he died.” And I remember thinking that, if Meemaw could forget the abusive, intolerant man she had married (my grandfather), then maybe this horrible disease had its upside. “Yes,” I told her. “He did. But look! There are your three children and I’m your granddaughter and that little girl in the pool is Eva, your great-granddaughter! She has your eyes and your laugh, Meemaw.” She would nod and smile, her hands working the stitches. “They tell me I had a husband and that he died.”

 

These days, Meemaw lives in a specialized home for people with dementia and Alzheimer’s. I go, with my two aunts, to visit her there. “Mommy? Mommy?” my one aunt coos at this tiny, limp woman in the bed. “Mommy? It’s time to wake up!” Lying there, with her eyes closed, it’s easy to imagine that my grandmother is just taking a nap. That, when she opens her eyes, she’ll suck in her breath and laugh that belly laugh that I love. “Oh! Kelly! You’ve come to visit!” she’ll say, wrapping me in a tight hug. “Are you hungry? Let me get you something to eat!”

 

But when she finally opens her eyes, the reality of the situation hits me hard, in the center of my chest, makes me hold my breath and fight back tears. Her eyes are dead. The color is gone. The twinkle is missing. She sits, slowly, staring at nothing, recognizing no one. And my aunts take her by both elbows and help her stand. I hold her hand as she shuffles, zombie-like, into the hallway and toward the center of the care facility. There are rooms decorated like ‘50s diners and old-fashioned front porches there. And if you couldn’t hear the mumbling, the screaming, the snoring, or the god-awful alarms that go off every time one of the men or women in the wheelchairs tries to stand up on their own … well, then this scene might look like you’ve stumbled into a regular assisted living facility. But this is no regular facility. This is where all of the grandmas and grandpas who don’t remember their families come to die. This is where my Meemaw sits every afternoon and evening, her hand pounding at the table, her eyes not focusing on anything in particular.

 

I feel like I’m going to pass out. My one aunt is cheerful, showing me around the place, talking about her new kitchen remodel. My other aunt is more realistic. She talks to the nurse about reducing my Meemaw’s medications. “She’s so drugged up!” she tells me. “But it was either drug her or kick her out.”

 

Apparently, my quiet, always friendly grandmother has taken on a new personality with this disease. A personality that likes to throw hot coffee in people’s faces and smear her feces on walls. It’s an angry personality. So they drugged her into submission. But I don’t blame her for being angry. She got a raw deal on life — caring for an ailing mother at the age of 11; married to a real prick of a man who used to yell at her and everyone else around him, scaring me half to death when I was a little girl; and Alzheimer’s just a few years after she was free to live her own kind of life. I’d throw feces, coffee and whatever else I could get my hands on.

 

While we’re sitting at the lunch table, my aunt lovingly spoon-feeding Meemaw and tending to her running nose, a couple of my grandmother’s friends join us. Doc is a giant of a man. A former ob-gyn who can’t remember why people call him “Doc.” When my Meemaw starts pounding the table — she does this constantly, as if she’s trying to tell us something — Doc pounds too. But then the pounding seems to piss him off and he tries to get away from us. The ear-splitting alarm goes off and an aide comes around, pulling Doc back into his wheelchair by the back of his pants and wheeling him into another room. Dotty comes to the table, too. She and my grandmother lived near each other for decades, raising children and dealing with mean men and still laughing over the best parts of life. Dotty has just come from the beauty parlor and looks ready for a day of shopping. She sits down at the table and an aide comes over with a hot lunch for her. “Watch out,” my aunt warns me. “Dotty is a spitfire.” A few minutes into her stay at the lunch table, Dotty lets loose with a string of obscenities and decides to leave without touching the salmon and mashed potatoes on her plate. I watch her shuffle into a corner of the room and wonder if she might have Tourette’s in addition to dementia, but my aunt assures me that Dotty was always like this. “She had a mouth on her even before,” she tells me. “She’s a tough lady.”

 

Meemaw was not a tough lady. She was gentle. And, despite the raw deal on life, never seemed bitter. She was always laughing and smiling and feeding people. I would come back from college and visit her. We would sit on her porch swing and drink coffee and trade stories. She told me that my grandfather only became mean after the babies came. She thought he had PTSD from the Korean War. I thought the fact that he never saw sunlight working the night shift at a steel mill probably had something to do with it, too. Either way, his nasty disposition did nothing to blemish Meemaw’s sunny one. She would scoff at him when he yelled at her to ‘Get my dinner!” And, later, when he had both legs amputated and was confined to a bed in the back of the house, Meemaw kept a baby monitor on the front porch so she could hear her husband and still swing her day away, drinking coffee and talking to neighbors. I was on the porch once, having come to visit from New Jersey, where I worked as a journalism intern for a business magazine. My grandmother and I were talking and, of course, drinking coffee, when the baby monitor went off. “Phyllis!” my grandfather yelled. “Come here!” Meemaw smiled at me and said, “Just a minute.” I thought she was going to go inside and do whatever it was that he wanted. But, instead, she walked over to the baby monitor and turned it off. “There,” she said. And I whooped with joy for her small act of rebellion.

I wish she had had more moments of rebellion. That she had flown on a plane or seen the ocean. That she had been able to enjoy her final years on her front porch, surrounded by family, her hands working balls of yarn into afghans or baby dresses. Seeing her the way she is now, no smile on her face or laugh gurgling out of her … it dislodges something heavier than simple sadness or grief in me. My mind imagines all sorts of scenarios to deal with this weird emotion: I envision smothering her with a pillow as she sleeps to end her days of hell. I picture breaking her (along with Doc and Dotty) out of this sterilized joint and taking them to a remote island where they can yell obscenities at the top of their lungs and throw sand at each other. I imagine that I also have this disease hiding in my brain … that I can no longer remember Eva or her future children.

 

I don’t cry. Instead, I walk my shuffling grandmother into the living room, bypassing an old man in a wheelchair, whom my aunt assures me will “grab my ass if I get too close.” We sit together on a couch and I put my arm around her, rubbing her shoulders and back. She leans into me and puts her head on my shoulder. “Do you like it here, Meemaw?” I ask, not expecting an answer. She lifts her head and looks at me. For one millisecond, something inside of her sparks to life. She only says one word, but it’s enough. “Yeah.”

Just Trust Me: 10 tips for my 17-year-old self

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Traveling back to the place where you spent your coming-of-age years has a way of making you think about everything you’ve learned in the 20+ years since then. If I could give my 17-year-old self some advice, here’s what I’d say:

 

1. Put that cigarette down. I know you love it. I know you think it will be easy to stop someday, but you’re wrong. It won’t be easy to stop. You’ll decide to quit when you’re 23. On your wedding day. Right before a 10-day road trip. You will be the crankiest new bride that ever existed. And you will gain about 45 pounds in one month. Just do us both a favor and quit RIGHT FUCKING NOW.

 

2. Your. Hair. Is. Awesome. Don’t start dyeing it purple and blue and white-blonde and black. Just. Please. Don’t. I am forever trying to get back to our 17-year-old hair color. And it’s always just a few shades too yellow. It’s very frustrating and I would like to shake you. But that would probably hurt worse than falling down and twisting my/our ankle.

 

3. Wear your glasses more often. When you are 22, you will paper-cut your eyeball and it will HURT. You will be forced to wear a big, black eye patch on the same day that this really cool woman from the Chicago Tribune comes to talk to your class. She will not meet your other eye or answer any of your questions … because you look like a deranged pirate and she is probably a little bit scared of you. I can’t remember how it happens, so just wear your glasses all the time.

 

4. Worry less about what’s happening to you and more about how your friends and family are doing. Call them. Like, all the time. Write them long, rambling, funny letters. Don’t worry if they don’t write back. Be around for them. Know things about them. Don’t think that it’s OK to let people slip through your fingers because there’s too much space in between you … or too much time has passed. You’ll regret it. Deeply.

 

5. Grieving is OK. Let it out. It gets better. Crying releases toxins. And it does not make you a drama queen, despite what your mother says. It just makes you human.

 

6. When you’re 18, you’re going to meet this guy who will tell you, “I thought you were pretty and smart, but then you opened your mouth and ruined it.” He is a dick. Please punch him. Hard. Preferably in his tiny, probably-paid-for, California nose. If you can swing it, cut off that hideous ponytail and burn it. Whatever you do, don’t believe him. Don’t let him get to you. Again, he is a total dick. The end.

 

7. While we’re on the subject of men: You will meet so many great ones — so many funny, smart, kind, handsome, loving, great ones. In fact, you will marry one of the great ones and have an incredible daughter. It won’t work out, but that’s OK. It doesn’t mean you’re a failure or that he’s a bad guy. It just was meant to be something different than a textbook marriage. However, when you meet the following types of men: The ones who don’t return your calls or only return your calls when they are drunk/high/up at 3 a.m.; the ones who ask you to smile more/smile less/lose weight/gain weight/cut your hair/grow your hair/dress differently/wear more makeup/wear less makeup/shave any body part; the ones who don’t give a shit that they’ve just made you cry; and especially the ones who call you crazy …. Don’t spend more than 30 seconds on those guys. None of them are worth it. And, between you and me, they all suck in bed.

 

8. Give birth in a dark room, by yourself. It will be faster and better. And she will be perfect. Also: If you’re wondering, you DO have postpartum depression. Get some help.

 

9. Don’t go into college immediately after high school. Take a year or three and travel. Go everywhere. Meet new friends. Learn new customs. Swim in different waters. Also: rethink that UofO journalism thing. Just … trust me on that one. Become a midwife instead. You’ll be a lot happier. And better paid.

 

10. Wear mineral sunscreen. There is no ozone over Jersey.

Days 2-6: Sand & surf. Cities & cornfields.

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Days 2-5 are a blur. There were long plane rides and medical emergencies at 38,000 feet. Jitney buses that never arrived. An airport filled with hundreds of chubby Boy Scouts at 4 in the morning. And a hotel in Atlantic City that greeted us with plaid carpets and saltwater pools and a king-sized bed that sucked me in for at least 12 hours. There were two days of lying on the sand and searching for seashells and (mostly) playing in the cool, salty ocean waves. There were two nights of walking miles and miles of boardwalk, hunting for some decent ice cream to soothe our sunburned, wave-wrecked, sleep-deprived bodies.

There was a lot of laughter and very little bickering. I let Eva eat nothing but French toast and berries and whipped cream for two whole days. I let her take the first shower after the beach. I bought her a boogie board. One that doesn’t fit in our extra-large-large suitcase. She was giddy and tan and smiling the entire time.

There was a train that rushed us through the New Jersey countryside (yes, there is one) and dumped us off at the Philadelphia train station on 30th Street. We walked for four hours in the bright city sun, taking refuge in places where Betsy Ross once attended Free Quaker meetings … where Ben Franklin’s bones rest … where Edgar Allan Poe wrote Eva’s favorite short story, “The Black Cat.” We ate pizza in a building that used to be a Presbyterian Church. We found vintage dresses that were 1/3 the cost of similar styles in Portland. Eventually, we made our way back to the train station … and headed north, to my dad’s house in rural Berks County.

Today is Day 6. We are surrounded by cornfields and family and Amish markets. This morning, I drove the tiny Evil and my “little” brother (who is now in his 30s) to Renninger’s Market. Past the aisle of many meats, past the rows and rows of antique what-nots, past the laughing old men in their stained t-shirts and suspenders, past the boxes of National Geographics and shelves of ancient Life magazines, I find it: The booth where I bought my first prom dress 22 years ago. It was a pretty little thing formed of black lace and crepe and velvet and tulle. A 1950s work of art for only $12. God, I loved that dress. I wore it with dainty “China doll” shoes. I wore it with red Converse. I wore it with clunky combat boots. I wore it until it literally fell apart. I am remembering that dress when I see a familiar face. Sitting there, in a rocking chair, fanning her face and lifting her long, silver-yellow hair off her neck, is the same woman who sold me the dress in 1992.

“I bought my prom dress here,” I tell her, running my fingers over a long yellow silk gown that would only fit half of me, but that would look smashing on the 12-year-old Weevil.

“When was that?” she asks.

“22 years ago.”

“Oh my! Yes … I guess I am that old,” she says.

Old? Is she old? Am I? Where did the past 20 years go? Who am I? Where am I? It’s hard for me to remember that I’m not 17 when I come to this place. I can close my eyes inside Renninger’s, or driving through the never-ending cornfields that line every road for the next 300 square miles, and I’m transported. I am wild and free and on the verge of adulthood. I am a rolling stone. I drive a fast red Mustang and I smoke unfiltered Camels. I am in love with life and always happy. There is a boy by my side. He’s got big blue eyes and long hair and a leather jacket. We roll through these cornfields on his motorcycle. It breaks down, but we don’t care. We have each other. We can walk for miles and miles and miles and it doesn’t matter. We are in love. We think that we will always be in love. But I stay away too long and the West Coast keeps calling me. He calls me crying. He flies out to Seattle and begs me to come back home. But I am young and free and I don’t want to get stuck there. I want to roam. He won’t wait. He decides that it’s not love. It’s hate. And so we go our separate ways.

Sometimes, maybe once every 4 or 5 years, I wonder what happened to that boy. So I use my spidey-journalism-stalker skills and I find him. It’s not easy. He shuns technology, like the good two-steps-removed-from-Amish boy that he is. But I don’t give up easily. Every time I find him, I discover that — like the woman at Renninger’s — he’s still here. Still living in these cornfields. Married to another girl. I wonder if she has long, blonde hair. I wonder if they can talk all night and then work all day and still have energy to ride around on that motorcycle when the moon peeks out. I could call him. I could say that we should go get a coffee and then I could hug him and tell him that I miss the sound of his voice and we could talk about that time we saw the Ramones at that tiny bar and how sad it is that the last Ramone “brother” died today. If I’d known him in Portland, I would do just that. But things are different here. More black and white. You don’t call someone else’s husband when you’re a single woman. You don’t call up a man who loved you, then hated you and now has probably forgotten you exist. You don’t rock the boat. You stay in the town you grew up in. And you are happy about it. That wasn’t me. I never would have been happy about living here.

I close my eyes and daydream … I’m 17 again. And my friends are coming to pick me up. We’ll head to the diner and drink coffee ‘til it closes. We’ll hit the thrift shops and buy mini-dresses for 50 cents. We’ll go listen to punk music and dance and dance and dance. We’ll ride through these cornfields and hold each other all night.

When I open my eyes, I’m smiling. And I can hear Eva joking with my dad downstairs. Tonight we’ll go out for Thai food. There will be no punk music. No long-haired boys to kiss. But there will be jokes and comfortable silences and the hope for Eva’s future. Things worked out like they were meant to. I have my girl. I have my life. I have my friends. I have 22 years of experiences and memories to keep me happy. And I’m still rolling. Still roaming. I’m still 17 inside my heart.

Day 1: Leavin’ on a budget jet plane

EvaBeachTechnically, we don’t leave until late tonight. But we leave 10 minutes before midnight, so I’m counting this as Day 1 of our 22-day East Coast Adventure. We are already ahead of schedule. There is a bag on the floor and it is partially packed. We have 15 hours until our plane pushes back, but I’m ready to leave Portland right now. Throw a couple toothbrushes into that partially packed bag. Grab a phone charger and a pair of sunglasses and I’d be out of here. I’d be 38,000 feet above Oregon, on my way “back home,” back to the Atlantic, to Appalachia, to Amish food stands and lakes and state fairs and men who are shorter than me.

It is July, and I want to spend the next two months submerged in water. There are bathing suits in that bag on the floor. They are underneath the black sandals that sort of hurt my feet, the dark blue “no muffin top” skirt that is made right here in Portland, the t-shirt proclaiming “I’m the Gangster of Love,” some relatively cozy underwear, a library book about the Riot Grrrl movement that I know I shouldn’t take to the East Coast but that I really want to finish, and a small tote bag filled with girly stuff like purple shampoo (to ward off yellow hair) mineral makeup in “golden beige” (sold on Etsy and hand-sifted by a woman in Colorado), a glass bottle of Love&Toast perfume that somehow smells like birthday cake and sex … and, of course, a tube of British Red lipstick.

We could leave right now and we’d be just fine. More than fine, actually. We’d be free. Free to roam. Un-tethered. Untroubled. Free to move about the cabin of the extremely low-budget airliner that will dump us off in Atlantic City tomorrow morning after a hell night on seats that don’t recline and water that costs $3 a cup (no kidding). Free from the shit that’s been dragging me down this spring. Free from the daily grind of sending out resumes to hundreds of writing gigs that came so easily in my 20s, but that are, apparently, out of reach now that I’m a nearly 40-year-old mother of one who can’t rock a mullet or skinny jeans and who has always been too fickle to get a tattoo. Free from babysitting kids who have never heard the word “no.” Free from explaining to OKCupid dates that, yes, I live with my ex-husband and that, no, I’m not in an open relationship — I’m just broke and I want to keep a stake in the house we co-own and we’re good friends and he travels all the time, and we have a pretty well-adjusted kid and two dogs that we both love and … well, screw it, if you think it’s too weird, then don’t ask me on a second date. Free from being the third, fifth, seventh wheel when I go out with my happily coupled-up friends. Free from explaining to my 12-year-old why she is too young to roam around the city on her own but old enough to bring the groceries in and help make dinner. Free from seeing him everywhere I go. That guy I can’t shake. Yeah, yeah, the one I can’t have. I get it. I know how fucked up it is. But I’ll have to deal with that therapy gold mine later. Because, like I said, that bag is partially packed and I’m ready to go …

My inspiration

My inspiration

Happy girl, happy dog, happy day at the river. Roll on, Columbia, roll on.

When I’m Not Writing, I’m Influencing Politicians

“Let’s hope (Portland City Commissioner Steve) Novick keeps Kelly Moyer’s number on file for the next time he needs inspiration and a reality check.” ~ Steve Duin, Oregonian 08/05/2013. That’s ME he’s talking about. Now you all know who to call for inspiration and a reality check!

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