For reasons that I still don’t entirely understand — maybe it was just because I needed a summer job or maybe it was because she recognized the same perfectionist gene in me that had been her hallmark — my grandmother decided to teach me the ins and outs of accounting (she called it “bookkeeping”) when I was in high school. She had been in charge of the books for the family business since its inception, which was something she did with both pride and precision. Yet, by the time I could drive, she had already taught me to post sales transactions, balance the night’s receipts, handle deposits, balance the bank accounts, prepare customer statements, write payroll checks, and compile the related tax returns.
“To the penny,” she’d always say, because she believed that it wasn’t right until it was exactly right. She did everything by hand, all in the sort of pitch perfect cursive handwriting that they used to teach in elementary school. There was nothing flowery or eccentric about her handwriting. It was deliberate with no frills, precise, and consistent… much like her. I used to practice my own handwriting obsessively (which, it should be noted, now looks nothing like hers) because there was something about her penmanship that, for me, spoke to who she was as a person. Every so often, even now, I’ll be going through old papers at the office or helping my grandfather sort through something at the house and I’ll encounter a note that my grandmother had written — there’s no mistaking her handwriting for anyone else’s because nobody writes like that anymore — and it always makes me smile.
I think I was in middle school when I first remember my grandmother, who would have been in her early 50s at the time, talking about the fear of “losing her mind.” She didn’t call it “Alzheimer’s” (I’m not sure anyone really ever used that word in her presence, even years later when it was clear that it had consumed her) or even “dementia.” Her fear was that she would lose-her-mind. This was often said in hushed tones, as though it was something akin to insanity or, at the very least, something shameful. Every time she’d forget or misplace something, like we all do from time to time, she’d lament what she knew to be the beginning of the end. She wasn’t a fearful woman, but this — this — she feared. She would talk about her various family members (parents, siblings, etc.) who she’d witnessed lose their grasp, too, which was something she felt certain was a precursor to her own eventual fading. It was, she thought, an inevitability.
Some years later, she did lose her mind, although the process was far more gradual and insidious than I think even she feared. There was a span of years where she had “good days” and “bad days,” the former being those days where she recognized people and wasn’t generally confused by her surroundings. As the years passed, the threshold for what constituted a “good day” became a bit of a sliding scale. The in-between years, when her days of lucidity were sprinkled amidst days of complete mental disarray, were the worst because she spent those moments of clarity being upset about the other days, those muddled days that she was all too aware were happening on her crippled watch. There was a specific point when my single prayer became that she would lose her mind completely, simply because the fleeting lucid moments seemed to bring her more pain than joy. For each moment that we were heartened to have been recognized or called by name, she was experiencing a moment of fear and regret for the forgetting that she knew was lurking around the corner.
Amidst the incredible soul-crushing sadness of her decline — for anyone who has witnessed the gradual loss of a loved one to Alzheimer’s, you understand what I mean — there were also moments of curiosity, even moments of humor. For a while, she was convinced that my sister was her sister. My sister would leave the room, her own kids often in tow, only to have my grandmother immediately begin to tell me a story about when they were growing up together. Strange how the mind begins to play tricks when one loses a defined concept of time and place. Then there was the time at a family Christmas gathering, in a room full of grandkids and great-grandkids all taking turns greeting my grandmother, when she pulled my wife aside and quietly asked, “just who are all these people?”
Mostly, I learned a lot about commitment during my grandmother’s illness. Their “in good times and in bad” exchange was decades earlier and yet, in that moment, when times were far from good, their marriage remained. Granted, it looked nothing like it did when I was a kid (there’s no clearer example of this than when I learned that my grandfather decided to bake cookies on his own), but the core of their marriage was unshaken, even in what I imagined to be the worst of circumstances.
My grandfather would often come down to the office in the mornings, on a short break from his primary job as my grandmother’s provider-of-all-things, and share a funny story about something my grandmother had said or a frustration about something she’d done. Sometimes he’d come down to the office and say nothing at all. But he would always return to her, without any apparent bitterness or resentment, and continue on with his pledge. In sickness and in health, even when that sickness seemed to dawdle on for years.
As the spouse of a recovering addict, it’s easy to get lost in the notion that my wife’s disease may in fact be with us for the rest of our lives. It seems like an overwhelming thought, even in these times when the addiction is being held at bay. I want to be able to embody the commitment and resolve that I witnessed, without succumbing to the very real fear of what may lurk.
In a way, I’m still practicing my own handwriting, in the hope that it will say something about who I’ve become or who I may yet be.