Kerstin and the Alzheimer's

Alva Isaksson

© Copyright 2018 by Alva Isaksson

Picture of a head with parts flying away.

My memories of my grandmother are plenty. The ones from when she was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease mixed in with the ones when from she was still well, the good and the bad, as with anything in life. I don’t merely associate my nana with her ruthless killer; rather, I try to remember her as the person she was before the disease started depleting her brain of her memories, personality, and physical abilities.

I don’t know what my grandmother was like when she was young. When I first was introduced to her she was labeled as my “grandma”, so that’s how I came to know her. I never knew what she was like when she was young, what kind of clothes she used to wear as a teen, or how her body looked before she gave birth to her first, second, or even third child. I do not know what kind of mother she was, what kind of wife, sister, or friend she was; all I knew her as was “grandma”, someone who was there to spoil and love me unconditionally. I can imagine her, though: a pretty girl – but not like a fashion model-pretty – with the same nose as I, and the hair styled as was the fashion in the late 50s. I can imagine her kind of shy, but suddenly stern when if someone crossed her. I can imagine her when she first met my grandfather, the story I have been told and that I love to hear over and over again.

My nana was going out with her girlfriends, to a dance that were held at a zoo called Skansen in the outskirts of the inner city of Stockholm. That zoo still stands in the same spot, but no longer holds dances for youngsters looking for a light intoxication of cheap alcohol and flirtatious crushes. My grandmother and her friends had been getting ready for hours before they tipsily entered the dance floor. Nana saw a man, a man who was handsome – but not fashion model-handsome. He asked her up for a dance and she accepted, cheeks flushing, and with the tune of her girlfriends giggling behind her. The two twenty-somethings, who decades later would be dubbed as “grandma” and “grandpa”, decided to meet next weekend again outside of the zoo’s gates. As agreed, my grandmother arrived and waited for my grandfather. She waited, and waited, and waited, but no one showed up. After a good forty five minutes or so, she decided that she had waited enough, she would accept defeat and leave for home, and maybe next week another handsome man would ask her up and her girlfriends would have a new guy to direct their giggles at. Just then, grandpa showed up, riding his motorcycle like he always did back in the days. He was sorry and she was mad. They went in and danced, and they kept dancing week after week, nana kept flushing, and her friends kept giggling.

One night, the enamored youngsters were riding back home on the motorcycle, when a car suddenly turned up around a corner, making my grandfather slam in to the vehicle. They were shook, but physically unharmed, and the bike was completely trashed. My grandfather, like the gentleman he is, put on a brave face and comforted my grandmother, saying that all that really mattered was that they were both okay. He took her home and then went his own way. When he stepped past the doorstep of his own house he broke down and cried. He was going to miss that bike.

The memories I have of my grandmother are less dance-all-night, motorcycle riding-filled. My nana had red hair and always wore very sticky red lipstick. She would welcome you with open arms and a kiss on the cheek, followed by her licking her thumb and erasing the red smudge that was left on your skin. One time, when I was washing my hair in my grandparents’ house, I mixed up the shampoo with grandma’s hair dye. I was dumfounded for several minutes, staring at this red goo in my hand. Smart as I was already as a little kid, I checked the “shampoo” bottle to see why it was red, and not clear as the one we had at home. I quickly realized my mistake, but that day I was very close to becoming a red head. I was scared I would get scolded for wasting my nana’s dye (what a rational kid I was), but instead grandma and grandpa laughed about for a long time. They taught me the humor that can be found in a small mishap.

When my brother and I were children, our grandmother and grandfather took care of us whenever our parents went away to have a weekend to themselves without annoying, craving, attention-seeking less-than-ten-year olds; like most grandparents do, I assume. These weekends were the highlights of my – so-far – short life, both because I loved my grandparents very much, but just as well because my brother and I both knew that we could now bend the rules of our strict parents to something that was more fitting to us. For dinner we always had pancakes, with so much jam, chocolate sauce and ice cream, that they were more sugar bombs than actual food. After “dinner” my grandmother and I would walk the ten minutes to the video store and buy a humungous bag of candy, and rent one – or maybe even two – movies. We would come home, pour out the candy in a glass bowl (like any older people, my grandparents had this deep-rooted dislike of eating candy straight from the bag), and put in the movie in the VHS player. While we were doing this, my brother and grandfather were busy upstairs playing computer games. Then we would eat candy until we felt sick, and watch one or both movies before we fell asleep from exhaustion.

My grandmother used to make sugar cake, but I don’t remember if it was sugar cake of pancakes she and I were making together, this one night. Us two, in the kitchen; me feeling like a real adult being allowed to crack the eggs and wisp the batter, her hurrying to pluck out the shells before the mix went into the oven. I was holding the bowl, but it was so big and heavy, so I put it down on the counter to rest my chubby arms. I had misjudged, and put the bowl too close to the edge, and the whole thing fell down to the floor. I was devastated. We had just finished the whole thing, and now because of me, we would not have any dinner tonight. (Now that I think of it, we were probably not making sugar cake). For the first time, we would have to eat something other than pancakes, like boring spaghetti or something just as dumb, and it was all my fault! I started crying – hysterically I might add – and I thought my grandmother would be angry and scream at me. I do not know why I thought so; my nana was not one to be known for getting unreasonably angry. As probably most of you already can guess, she did not scream at me. She consoled me, said that it was just batter, it was not like somebody had died, it did not matter. Then she had to close the kitchen door so their crazy dog could not come in and start running around in the mess. I kept crying and said that we were out of eggs so we could not make another batch, and that we would (oh, god, the horror) have to eat something else. My grandmother cleaned up the mess, went to the store, and got more eggs. I did not want to help the second time. Since I had failed our whole family on my first attempt, I could not risk that kind of embarrassment again. Eventually, my nana persuaded me to help her anyways, and eventually the pancakes (or was it sugar cake?) were ready. We had worked as a team and provided a meal for our family. The tradition would not be broken and the world was a sane place again.

My grandmother was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s when she was 60 years old, but I did not find out she was ill until one night five years later. My parents were going to some party and would be out late, so they asked my grandparents to watch my brother and I. Since it was a school night, nana and papa came over to our apartment, instead of us going all the way to them. We had the usual pancake dinner, but in the middle of the meal my grandma stopped eating and sat completely still, staring out into space. My grandpa knew what was wrong with her; most likely she was starting to have a psychosis, something that Alzheimer’s disease can bring on. He tried to conceal nana’s unusual behavior from us unknowing children, and calmly tried to convince her to keep eating. She refused. My grandfather cut her food for her and tried to feed her, but then my grandmother started screaming. My brother and I sat quietly and watched the battle turn out. Our grandpa was stressed out, on the brink of panic, and sent us to our rooms.

I thought my grandmother was drunk; I was probably only around eight years old, and this was the most logical explanation I could come to, even though I had never seen more than a couple glasses of beer or whine sink down my grandmother’s throat. Later, my parents came home and explained to me that my grandmother had a disease called Alzheimer’s, which made her memory really bad, and sometimes it could make her act like a child. Oh, I had thought, only Alzheimer’s. Sounds like a rational explanation. I did not know anything about Alzheimer’s at the time, neither had I ever heard the name before, but at least my grandmother was not a drunk.

A year or so later, I again spent a weekend at my grandparent’s house. A few weeks earlier I had entered a competition posted in a very beloved Swedish comic book for children. The results were posted in the latest number, which I now finally held in my hands, and I knew, I just somehow knew, that I would be one of the winners. I checked the page that listed the lucky ones, but did not see my name among them.

Nisse”, I called for my grandfather. “Why did I not win?”

Oh” A moment of silent. Then, sitting closer to me, with a lowered voice, grandpa continued. “Well, you see, grandma probably forgot to send your submission … You know, it’s not her fault.”

Aha! I saw my mistake. I had handed the piece of paper, carefully placed in an envelope, sealed and marked with a stamp and address, to my grandmother. I was slightly angry with her for ruining this very important moment in my life, but quickly realized that there was nothing to be done. It was okay, it was not like I didn’t win because the company of the comic had made a huge mistake by not appointing me the queen; it was because of the Alzheimer’s. Oh, well, next time I would give my submission to my grandfather instead.

Alzheimer’s is not something that happens over night, it is not a change in a person that suddenly pops up and then they’re gone forever. Alzheimer’s means watching your grandmother over the course of ten years turn from a loving, slightly ditzy, old lady, to a living dead, lying in the bed of a care home that smells like old people, and eventually getting the phone call that she died when the caretakers turned her to avoid bedsores. In the beginning on the disease, it manifested itself by my grandmother forgetting small things, and asking the same questions several times; nothing that was not too unusual for an aging woman. Then, she stopped dying her hair and putting on lipstick, and for the first time I saw that my grandmother’s hair was actually gray, and for the first time I got a kiss without red smudge. She could no longer hold a coherent conversation, as she eventually always spaced out, or switched the subject to something completely irrelevant. She kept calling everyone by the wrong name, except for my grandfather; I believe she always was somewhat aware of who he was (a proof of how strong true love can be). When I met my grandmother now, my mother always had to introduce me: “Kerstin, this is Alva, your granddaughter”, before nana recognized me and gave me the old hug-and-kiss.

And then one time she disappeared.

It is not unusual for people with Alzheimer’s to get lost in their surroundings, even if they have been at the place hundreds of times before. My grandmother was out for a walk with the dog, something my grandfather still let her do. I think, the reasons he let her still go out by herself was a mix of that exercise is good for people with Alzheimer’s, and that my grandfather really dislike walking. Only, this time, she did not come back. She was gone for an hour or so, I believe, before he got worried and called his three children and the police. By nine o’clock in the evening my mother was well worried too, and my grandma was still not back. Eventually, she did arrive back at the house. Their dog had gotten tired, and lead her back home.

My grandfather was set on taking care of his wife; he would not let the love of his life be put in a home for someone else to care for. When my grandmother fell down the stairs because she forgot to turn on the light when she was going to the bathroom, he changed his mind. Nana lived a couple years longer in the care house.

My mother and I would drive – or, rather, I would practice my driving for my upcoming test and my mother would hang on for dear life – to the home and visit nana. In the end, however, it was not much to visit. She was no longer a grandma that would make you pancakes, and not scream at you for knocking out the whole batter. She was a gray, unresponsive, immovable, thin thing that looked more like a mummy than a living human being. My mom and I mostly came over in the faint hope that perhaps nana would at least sense that there was someone standing beside her, loving and caring for her. We also come to keep my grandfather company, so he would not have to sit there alone every day, because, he actually sat there every single day for months. I’m telling you, love is strong.

When my mother called to tell me that nana was no longer with us, I was devastated, but, honestly, also relieved. The last four months had just been an endless wait to see if she would survive until the next day or not, and now the day had come where we wouldn’t have to wait any longer. Still, I cried for hours. Grandma’s disease, that had taken her grandpa from her, his mother from him, and so many others before, had claimed another victim.

So, I wonder; who will be the next?

One time, on my grandmother’s birthday, I gave her a pair of glasses I had made from wire and plastic wrap. They were amazing and she loved them. I miss her.

My name is Alva and I am 20 years old. I am born and raised in Stockholm, Sweden. Currently, I study psychology at the University at Buffalo, in Buffalo, NY, in the US.

I was born in a southern district of the inner city of Stockholm. From year four to year nine, I went to an art school, with a focus on photography and filming. In high school, I went to a school for social science and media, with added courses of writing, english, and psychology. I completely fell in love with psychology after one course, and decided to major in it when I went to college. More than psychology, however, I love reading and writing. I have been reading fiction since I was five years old, and writing stories since I was eight. My biggest dream would be to be able to work full time as a writer, but other than that I would want to work with research in psychology.

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