What do memories really mean for someone with Alzheimer’s?
The phone rings as I wait for my grandfather, I call him my “Tata”, to answer the phone. After several rings, he picks up the phone. “Hello” he says, stern and firm, almost like he’s expecting a telemarketer to be on the other side. As soon as he hears my voice, he softens. My voice is a familiar sound, one that he still recognizes immediately. He asks how me and the boys are and I give him a brief rundown of the latest happenings. Then, he asks me how things are going at the farm.
Several years ago, my family realized that the forgetfulness and memory loss affecting my Tata was more than forgetting a name or misplacing an item. The kind of forgetfulness he was experiencing was uncharacteristic for him. My Tata spent 20 years in the Air Force and could remember the names, dates and places of important information with little more than a moment to think about it. He could recall memories with such clarity and detail that even the slip of a name was surprising. As his frustration grew, we realized it was time to see a doctor. At the beginning of their first appointment, the doctor asked my Nana and Tata a set of ten simple questions. He continued with their conversation and circled back around to the questions at the beginning of the session. My Tata was unable to remember more than a few of the questions. To the doctor, this signified more than just senility, but the onset of Alzheimer’s.
As time has gone on, the progression of his disease, has taken more away from more than a misplaced TV remote. He doesn’t eat or he eats three meals back to back not realizing he has already had breakfast twice in a morning. He naps in the afternoon and upon seeing the time thinks it’s the early morning despite the sun being up. He forgets where he is and gets lost without someone to guide him. He gets angry and agitated and sometimes aggressive if he is out of his routine. As time has gone on, he has forgotten more of the details of his life, mostly the recent past. As the disease progresses, he time travels back to the places he knew and loved the most when he was younger. For my Tata, the best days of his life were spent in the Air Force.
When asked about his military days, my Tata could tell stories for hours. He will tell about his time spent in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. He talks of the bases he’s worked at from California to Arkansas to New York and all the way over to Spain. He will tell you every detail of the planes he’s worked on, but the most important was the plane he worked on the day of May 6th, 1974. When he tells this story, which is often, he starts by speaking of the plane and being in Vietnam when the war ended. “I’ll never forget, we received a memo that said “The war is over. Cease and desist all operations and prepare aircraft for return to McClellan AFB.” His eyes fill with tears and he gets choked up remembering that plane. If you’d like to see the plane, click HERE.
As I talk to my Tata on the phone, I remember he asked about the farm and I’m jolted back into the present moment. You see, I don’t live on a farm and my Tata has never been to my home in Texas. But when he asks, I tell him everything is great at the farm, the animals are good and we’ve had a great crop this year. I don’t remember when he started asking about the farm, and neither does he, but we have created a unique place that we travel to each week. The farm is owned by someone else and is on 25 acres. We moved here to take care of the property and, in return, we live here rent-free. We have a variety of animals including pigs, chickens and goats. We grow corn and have a small garden of tomatoes, squash, cucumbers and various peppers that we sell at the farmer’s market each week. The farm, or the ranch as he calls it, is beautiful. We recall the time that he came to “visit” me and he says that he’s so glad him and my Nana were able to make the trip. He doesn’t think they’ll be able to come again, but at least he got to see it once.
For Alzheimer’s patients, memories are relative, like trying to hit a moving target. On good days, memories can bring a smile and peace. On bad days, memories can ignite anger, disappointment and frustration. But, for now, no matter what kind of day it is, I can reach through the phone, grab his hand and we can time travel together and create new places to remember. Memories and reality are no limit for our imaginations.
(This blog post was originally written as an essay for a travel writing class I was taking, but I felt the need to share it after receiving several compliments from family, friends and classmates who were affected by it.)