In recent years it has become apparent that Alzheimer's Disease runs in my family, most recently and prominently it has appeared in my maternal grandmother. This particular disease, like all degenerative diseases is a cruelty visited upon over five million people in this country alone and it was always one of those diseases I heard about in the abstract. The kind of disease that hovers around everyone you know but in a "Oh that's terrible, tsk tsk" sort of way instead of a "I see this person everyday and I see how they are disappearing everyday" sort of way. Well, I don't live in the abstract about it anymore.
Among other things, knowing this fact, living so close to it now, has made me paranoid. I keep reading all these things about ways to prevent getting it: mental exercises to do, foods to eat or avoid, statistics. Apparently it calms me to pretend I'm doing something when in actuality, all I'm doing is reading and eating right, which, considering I do this anyway, I am doing nothing.
And despite the fact that my entire life I have forgotten certain things, I'm lately seeing in everything a sign that I'm likely to inherit the disease or something like it. For example, I have never once been able to drive to the local multiplex from my house without getting lost. Wait, maybe once I did it but I'm reasonably certain that was a fluke. And everytime I'm leaving the mall, I have to think for a solid five minutes about the way to get home. I wish I was exaggerating. But sometimes there are places that simply do not stick in my brain. I've been to Albany a bunch of times and have yet to drive there without the journey being intricately mapped out ahead of time.
I routinely forget where I put my keys. This happens minutes after I put them down. I have lost roughly 200 pairs of earrings out of sheer forgetfulness. On the flip side of that, I will also routinely find a pair of earrings or a necklace that I "lost" three years ago in a pocket or an unused purse. One time one of my earrings was somehow stuck to my cat's back while she was sleeping. Lord knows how it got there.
Each morning it is a crap shoot when it comes to whether or not I'll remember to bring my coffee mug with me or my prepared lunch.
These are minor acts of forgetfulness...I remember birthdays, I remember meetings, things I need from the drugstore or supermarket. I have a long term memory that rivals an elephant. I often remember things about people I knew years and years ago but haven't seen in subsequent years and years. My private jokes never die because I can't forget them. And when I have a memory like that, I'm often comforted that if my memory is good now, I'll be ok, I'll be immune to degeneration. And then I read an article that early signs of Alzheimer's include short term memory loss. Most patients start by forgetting recent memories or tasks that need to get done and then I'm thrown into my ridiculously self absorbed paranoia yet again.
And then I spend an afternoon with my grandmother. She'll recognize me as someone she knows or knew at one time. She hugs me and smiles at me every time we make eye contact. We chat about the weather. I tell her she looks good. She asks me where I live, where I'm going. Yesterday I walked up to her, sitting on the couch and she was crying. She told me she missed her mother. In the next breath she told me I looked nice and that my dress was well made. (She was a seamstress for years and years.) I sat with her and she fell into silence, staring out the window. I wondered what shape her thoughts take now. Is it all just a rush of confusing images and memories? Does her memory stop after a certain point? When she has those moments of clarity does she think about how to stay there? Is it like someone in a movie who is holding on to a ledge about to drop? Is she sad when she remembers anything at all? My grandfather put music on. He has a playlist on his iPod of Spanish music from the 1930s, the stuff he has told me many times that they used to love when they were first married. And my grandmother started to sing along. She remembered every word. She remembered the melody and was smiling as she sung along. I sat there and listened to her and was grateful that at least she had that. At least she could remember the melodies she loved. It might not be terrible to sit in a room with your favorite songs, singing along.