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in a better place (r.i.p. grandma)

Late yesterday afternoon my grandmother’s long, slow journey through Alzheimer’s disease came to a peaceful end. My dad was at her side when she let free her final breath after 91 years on this mortal coil.

My grandmother was a loving, proud and stubborn person – a fighter whose heart was in the right place, even if she wasn’t always able to properly express the love and concern she felt for those she cared about. She came to the United States at the end of World War II with my grandfather and father, hoping to find a good life and safe place for her family.

I’d say she succeeded in that effort.

My memories of grandma are largely positive – some of this being a coping mechanism to help blunt the cruel effects that Alzheimer’s had on her mind and personality. I only ever knew my paternal grandparents, and my grandpa died on April Fool’s Day in 1980, when I wasn’t even 7 years old. So my grandma was the only grandparent I truly knew.

She was meticulous – her house was always in order – yet eclectic. She collected Hummels. She crocheted afghans. She loved oil painting, and I think I first heard Bob Ross muse about his “happy little trees” at her condo. She taught me how to play blackjack, and when I really liked Vangelis’ theme to Chariots of Fire, she bought the record and let me play it on her giant console stereo over and over again. She was always proud of her only grandson, and I tried to make her proud, just the same.

Grandma had a tough relationship with my dad and me, made even tougher through my parents’ divorce. Yet she kept plugging along. Only after her mental faculties started to decline did her environment start to betray her. When my dad moved to the Pacific Northwest, she really didn’t want to move out of her little bungalow in Holladay, Utah, but it was clear that she wasn’t able to survive alone.

But her mind was going, without any doubt. Alzheimer’s is a cruel disease, as it takes away the person you know and love for years before they physically die. As sprite said to me, it’s like they die twice.

But that’s little comfort – it’s still far from easy to cope with the death of the only grandparent you’ve ever known.

I last saw grandma – the woman who knew my name and who I was – before she left Utah. I last saw her, in person, four years ago, at the nursing home where she spent her final years. The double effects of Alzheimer’s and heart disease had ravaged her, both mentally and physically. She didn’t recognize me as me, but as a nice young man who had come to visit her. At that point, she usually recognized my dad as her long-deceased brother. The medications used to treat the heart ailments had her bloated to a plump size.

Yet she smiled a lot. And laughed. And enjoyed the time we spent together.

And that’s my final memory of her: smiling, laughing and happy. Forget all the crap that Alzheimer’s had thrown at her, at my dad, at me – she was happy.

I spoke to her a few more times after that visit, each conversation becoming more disjointed and frustrating. But the calls would usually make her happy – the “nice young man” (or “vriendelijke jonge mens” in Dutch) would be on the phone with her, and that was always able to perk her up. Sure, she’d often speak to me in Dutch, which was trying, and many times she wouldn’t understand what I said to her. But you could sense the smile.

But eventually it became too frustrating to call her, so disjointed and, frankly, depressing were the interactions.

But I still have the visual memory of her smile – and of the Polaroid of her giving me one of my favorite teddy bears for my first birthday, the warm smile on her face was contagious and still able to make me beam with the memory.

And I have the taste memories of her vegetable soup (always from scratch) and the bean and bacon soup (Campbell’s condensed, always found in her pantry). And oh, how I miss the Professor Poole’s chocolate-covered raspberry pudding pops – that’s a flavor combination I’ll always associate with her in the old Neff’s Lane house.

And the audio memories of her in better times: the whoops and hollers when things went well, the kind voice who would settle me down, the laughs when she told a slightly racy joke, and her warble-laced singing while she cooked or cleaned.

So rest in peace, grandma. I know you’re in a better place now, and I’m so glad I knew you.

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