The Island…A True Story About Memory on Memorial Day

Memorial Day in the United States has been traditionally used to honor war dead, and I’m certainly not discounting or disrespecting that. I do think all of us should remember that the reason most of us get a day off work or school is because of those fallen, but personally, I want to write about something else today. I don’t think those who died in war are the only people no longer with us who deserve to be remembered and honored on this long weekend, or in general.

I’ve talked about my sharp memory before, but today I’m going to post a piece about memory loss. Because today is a day on which we’re supposed to remember, and some people can’t, and for the past several Memorial Days, I’ve been remembering a person who lost their memory.
I’ve written about Alzheimer’s Disease in my fiction a few times. Here’s my real life inspiration for it…

The Island

There was a tall island in the kitchen at my Aunt D’s house.
When I was a little girl, it held birthday cakes for all my cousins, and food for a bunch of Sunday and Thanksgiving dinners, and Christmas Eve evenings right up to Midnight Mass.
When I was in high school and college, it held bowls of grapes, or cold sandwich fixings, or fast food take out for a quick lunch after church.
After Halloween and Easter, it held a bowl of leftover candy (not for long).
It often held part of a newspaper.
I probably ate and read comic strips from that island more than any other place besides my mom’s house, my Gramma’s house, and my OWN kitchen.
But the best part about the island was that Aunt D was always leaning on it or standing around it, and after church, you could chat with her about something.
Something that would never really matter, like the score of a baseball game.
Something that mattered a lot in the moment, but wouldn’t matter in the long run, like how you were anxious living away in the dorms at college.
Something that would ALWAYS matter, like family…
Whatever it was, she always listened and responded in a way that made you feel like YOU mattered.

She loved celebrating people: birthdays, holidays, any success you had no matter how small it really was. I have still never met anybody better at that—really celebrating someone else’s victory or life event, from the huge and consequential to the small and even silly.
Engaged?! New baby?! New house?! New car?! New dog?! Dean’s List?! The team you play third string left field for won a softball game!? AWESOME!
There was never any irony or judgment or hidden envy or any other form of ill-
will in it. Ever. She was always REALLY happy for you.
I wish everybody could have that: someone who was genuinely happy and proud of you for whatever you were excited about, every time.
That happened often around that island in the kitchen.
I was a stupid kid that never thought those moments were special, because I hadn’t grown up to encounter cynicism and apathy at every turn in ‘the real world,’ and also because those moments happened all the time. They were routine, like zipping your
coat, or brushing your teeth, so I can’t recall one of them with real clarity now, and I just hate it.
I hate that I took her, and her sincere sweetness, and overt care for literally every living being she met for granted.
But I totally did.
Then she got diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.

For a while, that was just a vague, intangible thing that was slow and virtually unnoticeable, because I didn’t live with her to watch the minor hiccups of the beginning stages first hand, she was still the nicest person on the face of the Earth, and she still smiled and talked with me with warm recognition every Sunday after church.
And then I noticed.
And THAT moment around the kitchen island I do, unfortunately, remember in all its unforgiving sharpness.

Aunt D had a natural inclination, a drive, a GIFT, to serve other people. She was the most selfless, generous person I have known in my life. And whenever you entered that house, if she was home and awake, she immediately offered you something.
So when my mom and I walked into the kitchen after mass, remembering (Yay! REMEMBERING!) what my mom likes most to drink, Aunt D said, ‘Can I get you a Diet Coke, P?’ My mom replied with a polite no, because we were only going to stay for a few minutes. Aunt D acknowledged the refusal with a smile and she and my mom exchanged a sentence or two, and then she repeated, ‘P, how about a Diet Coke?’ Again, my mom cordially turned her down and continued with some small talk when for the third time in less than 100 seconds, Aunt D asked her if she’d like a Diet Coke.
We stayed for ten minutes. She asked to serve my mom Diet Coke seven times. I never talked to my mom about this event, but I cried about it later. If I was watching that scene on some dumb sitcom before Alzheimer’s touched my family, I’d have likely
laughed. Now it’s just not funny.

There were a few more really clear instances in the early stages of the illness when she lost a memory in front of me and it made me tear up. It was hard to watch her lose something and KNOW she lost it. I can only imagine how utterly terrifying it was to HER, to KNOW she lost something she had a hold on last week, or yesterday, or a minute ago. She loved sports from little league to the pros, just like me, and I had a high school acquaintance who became a well known college football star and was eventually drafted in the NFL, and made the Pro-Bowl and stuff there too. Aunt D and I talked about him often.
Every week for three college football seasons: ‘How’d S do against <in conference rival>?’ ‘How many yards did S have against <another big football school>?’ ‘Wow! I saw that <game versus a team where S broke a major record> game! That was FANTASTIC!’ She read papers and watched Sports Center. She called him by his name and heard ME call him by his name a lot. She KNEW his name. So when he got drafted in the pros, standing around the kitchen island the Sunday after Draft Day, she said, ‘I saw…your friend that plays football…got drafted yesterday…your friend that went to school with you…what’s his name?’
‘That’s right. I knew that,’ she said.

Then, when it progressed beyond immediate short term memory loss, it was sadder, but she didn’t have any kids or grandkids that went to S’s high school or college or who lived in the city of the football team that drafted him, and she never personally met
S or anything, so I still operated with denial, and was sure that she wouldn’t forget ME.

And she gave me lots of hope that I was right. When J and I got engaged, she remembered I was planning to get married, and told me more than once ‘Congratulations!’ and that she was so happy about it. She remembered who J was, despite only seeing him a few times, and she danced with my Uncle B at our wedding.

But she DID forget me.

First, she just reduced my age.
When The Boy was born, and Mom and I visited with him (she always loved kids and babies, and that never changed…she had 12 kids and 17 grandkids), she looked at my mom (she remembered Mom a long time…they used to work together in addition to being sisters-in-law), not at me, and said ‘She’s just beautiful, P.’ About The Boy.
She thought he was ME. And that it was the fall of 1978 and my MOM was showing off HER new baby GIRL. * I* didn’t get new celebration. My mom got a repeat instead. But at least it was still there.

When The Boy was a toddler, she didn’t say many coherent sentences anymore, so I didn’t get ‘Look at him go, Jen!’ Even my mom didn’t get ‘Look at her go, P!’
When he started preschool, and we’d visit, she’d still smile at the cute things he did and said, but she didn’t acknowledge who we were. I think to her, I was just a nice, quiet lady that brought a funny little boy around to entertain her for a while. I wasn’t ever going to get ‘He’s so smart, Jen!’ or ‘Really?! He ate asparagus?! Finally! That’s great!’
And I feel cheated. I really miss that happiness and enthusiasm.
The Boy vaguely remembers her, but they never really knew one another, because she couldn’t remember HIM, and because, to him, she was always Forgetful Aunt D.
I hate that he never got to hear any words to go with her sweet smile. He never got to stand around that kitchen island and tell her about new Lego sets or piano lessons, and watch her light up with excitement exactly the same way he does. We lost her long before she passed away, because Alzheimer’s stole her.

Today, on Memorial Day, I remember Aunt D, and hope that wherever she is now, she can remember me.
And if any of you are looking for a cause to champion (there’s no shortage of them, I know), think of working towards a cure for Alzheimer’s Disease, and support for caregivers. They do a REALLY tough job, and they could use all the resources they can get.

end alz


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