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When Alzheimer’s brings darkness, love lights the way

Stef Lewandowski CC

Anna O'Neil - published on 01/26/17

Sometimes your problems can be fixed, but sometimes they can’t. When nothing can be done, though, we are by no means helpless.

My grandmother’s Alzheimer’s has been steadily worsening, and the timing for me has been heartbreaking. Just when I was becoming ready to get to know her as a friend, she was starting to forget who I was.

Recently, I was staying at her house, and I realized that if I am ever going to try to get to know her, it has to be now. So I just started talking, and payed close attention to what made her face light up.

To my delight and hers, we were able to remember a small avalanche of details, one after another, about her old parish priest. We reeled out a monumental 10 minutes on this topic, and she was thrilled. She understood that this was rare, and told my grandfather, glowing, “Look at us! We’re sitting here talking about Fr. Stan, just like old people!” She meant “just like old times,” of course, but that was perfectly clear.

I had to dash away for five minutes, though, and when I came back, the whole conversation was gone, full stop. To her, it might never even have existed. I saw that not only did she not know who I was, but she also didn’t associate my face with the fleeting happiness we’d had together. She looked slightly confused by my excitement. It was devastating.

How is it possible to have a relationship without the continuity that memory gives?

It was months later that I realized my grandmother had already answered that question for me, though indirectly. Four years previously, in the very same house, I was the one who was confused and sad. She was sitting next to me on the bed, while I poured out a long and complicated story of my troubles. I knew she had a lifetime’s worth of accumulated wisdom and prudence, and thought if anybody could help me, it would be her. She listened without interrupting, and when I ran out of words, she looked at me, and told me, “I wish I knew what to tell you. I wish I knew how to make it all better. I’m no good at solutions. But I’m so sorry you are hurting.” My own pain was mirrored tenfold in her eyes. Then she smiled a bit sheepishly, and reminded me there was still a slice of strawberry cheesecake left, which couldn’t hurt, and neither could a good night’s sleep.

I thought I needed her to fix my problems, but it turned out that more than that, I just needed love. Her love didn’t lift the darkness for me that night, but it has stayed with me in the back of my own memory. That conversation has been there to remind me that I don’t have to fix the world; I just have to love the people in it. Love is the bedrock of every relationship, and even when every memory that built the relationship is stripped away, if love remains, then the relationship has what it needs to endure.

Sometimes your problems can be fixed, but sometimes they can’t. When nothing can be done, though, we are by no means helpless. When there is no solution, no way to alleviate the suffering, to heal the illness, we still have something left to give—just our presence, just love. (And maybe a slice of cheesecake, if there’s one handy.)

Next time I am lucky enough to see my grandmother, I will still try to seek out whatever memories she still has. They are precious, since they contributed to making her the woman I know. But I won’t be as disappointed if we talk even less than last time. I can’t bring her mind back to its prime, or ask her all the questions I never had answered. I can’t fix her suffering.

But I can still sit with her and love her, and that’s still the most important thing I could do.

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