|Prof. Van Noy
November 25, 2014
“What brings you in today?” That is usually the question then followed with “What is your family history?” I woke up on a Friday morning feeling a sense of relief knowing that in a few hours my weekend would begin. After pressing the snooze button three times I decided that it was time to get ready before I was late for class. I reluctantly dragged myself to the bathroom and flipped my head upside down gathering my hair into a pony tail. With one hand holding the pony tail and the other gathering loose ends of hairs that were forgotten, I noticed I was running my hand over tiny bumps on the back of my neck. I flipped my head up right and struggled to see what was on my neck. Four little bumps appeared that I decided to ignore and continued getting ready for class. After struggling to find a parking spot for my morning class, I eventually made it with just a few minutes to spare. As I sat in my seat trying to concentrate on the lecture I could not help but feel the tiny bumps slowly begin to swell up and become bigger. When I arrived back at home I quickly packed my overnight bag and took a last minute look in the mirror and noticed that the rash stayed the same before making the drive to George Mason University. By the time I reached George Mason the back of my neck broke out even more in size and quantity. I was greeted by my boyfriend and he told me that we had plans to go to a party that night.
“The Lord is my Shepard I shall not want.” I began to read Psalm 23 out of the Bible while teary eyes and runny noses stared in my direction towards the altar. Death scares me and so do funerals. I have lost three people very dear and close to my heart and my beloved dog. I always loved the holidays when I was younger because it meant that it was time to pack up the car and travel to Grandma’s house. My grandma would greet us by holding open the heavy metal screen door as we scurried into her house to get warm from Ohio’s harsh winter s and where we awaited hugs and kisses. My grandmother could remember anything her memory was so sharp she could recall any story that I wanted to know about my father when he was a child. She filled my head with marvelous stories she had about her life as an Army wife and traveling to different countries with my grandpa. One of my favorite stories she told me was the one about my father knocking out his two teeth when he was younger. “Now let me tell you what, your father just flipped over the handle bars and landed face first into a metal rail in the street. He ran all the way back to the house screaming and crying”. I do not know why I found the story of my father knocking out his teeth to be so humorous but I did. The way she told stories could pull any child in.
Holiday meals were always a fun experience to be around the table. Grandma was so quick to respond to questions and would be the center of attention during family gatherings and conversations. As I got older I noticed that she seemed a little different each time we would visit her. At first I thought nothing of it because I knew she was getting older and I assumed that these changes were bound to happen. Each time we went to Ohio grandma began to forget little things. She struggled to remember what activities were planned for the day and also became lost in conversations. In reality her sharp mind was slowly beginning to deteriate. I heard my father holler for me to come to the kitchen table to have a family talk.
My feet slowly began to sink into the animal foot prints that are embedded in the damp sand along the river. The sun hitting my skin and a crisp breeze wisped through the trees and traveled through my hair. As I stared straight ahead watching the sun glisten on the water, I could not help but wonder about the unexplained mysteries and changes that lie deep within the river. As I turned around I saw tree roots forming complex mazes along the banks of the river.
Despite my discomfort, I sucked up the pain and decided to wear a scarf to cover up the breakout since my hair irritated my skin even more. As the night went on I was eager to go back to the apartment due to how fast the rash was continuing to spread and the amount of pain it was causing. I tried to go to sleep thinking that the pain would decrease and it would be better in the morning. Every hour I woke up in excruciating pain with the feeling of my neck on fire. A few hours of sleep and a half a bottle of itch cream gone I woke up at 6:00 am to call my mother hoping that she would have the answer to everything.
“How bad does it hurt?” she asked.
“I could not even let my hair down at the party or keep my scarf on to cover how gross my neck broke out, and no mom I am not exaggerating.” I responded.
“Where is it exactly on your body?”
“It is on the back of my neck and it is trailing down the left side of my back!” I said frantically.
“Yup. You most likely have shingles. That is what my father had when he came down with shingles. Call in sick to work and come home immediately.”
We gathered around the table and he told me that there was something wrong with grandma.
“Grandma Bagley has Alzheimer’s” he said.
There was a long quiet pause and confusion painted on my face.
“Her brain is not working very well anymore. That is sometimes what happens when people get older.” He said trying to reassure me that my grandmother would be okay.
“But why does it have the name Alzheimer’s if memory loss is normal for people when they get older?” I asked.
“Nina, Grandma is going to be different every time we see her. She has a disease that will affect the family members just as much as she is being affected. As time goes on, she will most likely not recognize you or even me.”
After she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, our visits would lack the deep conversations and detailed stories about the past. Her forgetfulness was small and innocent at first, but it took a turn for the worst when I was in middle school. My parents made the decision to place my grandparents in an assisted living home where there would be a trained caretaker to look over my grandmother and her safety. Months went by in the assisted living home and my grandmother eventually lost recognition of who my father was. My dad reminded me every time we walked through the sliding black doors of the assistant living home to go with the flow and whatever grandma talks about it just carry on. “Hi Mommy. It’s me your son, Fred. Your granddaughter Nina came to see you.” My father would say as he leaned in close to put his arm around his fragile mother.
Every time her family came to see her we had to introduce ourselves to her like strangers meeting for the first time, because to her that’s what we were. From then on I knew my grandmother would never be the same again because of this terrible unexplained disease that affects so many people.
Why were these roots so entwined with one another? Was it representing the unexpected twists and turns that formed the base as they continued to grow? I turned back around and faced the river looking upstream thinking of the different obstacles and bumps that the river traveled through before it approached me. Did it have more sunny days than rainy days? How rough did the current get when unexpected storms would strike and how peaceful and still was the current on relaxing summer days?
‘I am going to die’ was the first thought that came to mind, even though that was a tad bit dramatic. Shingles happen in older people who are in their sixties and seventies, not young people. I rushed home and went to the emergency clinic down the road. After the tedious blood pressure, height, and weight screenings were done I sat anxiously behind the blue curtain waiting for the doctor. Finally the doctor came in and asked me the famous first question “What brings you in here today?” I explained to her that I might have a case of the shingles. She took a look at my neck and confirmed that the red blistering was indeed shingles. She told me that I was the youngest patient she had seen to come in with this painful outbreak. I asked her why it happened in me at 19. She explained to me that since I had a mild case of chicken pox when I was younger than it can come in contact later on in my life, but that it is extremely unusual and rare for young people to break out in them. The only explanation we could come up with was that it was a strange health coincidence since I do not have any family medical history due to my adoption.
It was a blistering hot day in June three years ago. My father and I packed the car and drove to Ohio to celebrate my grandmothers 94th birthday. I hadn’t seen her in several years so I was eager to see her on her special day. The assistant living home still carried the lingering creepy smell in the hallways that I remembered from years ago. I walked in room 112 where I saw my grandmother in her wheel chair slouched over. I carefully and quietly walked into her room and sat in the chair right in front of her. She was super thin and did not look like the grandmother who once held open the screen door with excitement to see her family on the holidays. As I examined how much she changed from just a couple of years I could feel a lump in my throat form and tears blurring my vision. We spent the afternoon together in silence holding hands and flipping through old photo albums. She did not look up or say anything, but I knew she understood what the photos meant to her. She abruptly placed her wrinkled hands over certain photographs and would rub the faces in the pictures which led to me believe she still remembered something. We had a birthday cake delivered to her room, served with her favorite soda on the side and sang happy birthday to her. “Even though I walk through the shadow of death I will fear no evil, for you are with me.” I was almost done reading Psalm 23 at her funeral. My grandma died at age 94 the following November. Alzheimer’s is the 6th leading cause of death in the United States. However, there is still not an exact explanation of how Alzheimer’s develops in people and there is still not a cure. This unexplainable disease robbed my grandmother’s energy, memory, family, and life.
As I looked across the river I see the sun hiding parts of the trees with shade while casting light on the other half. What secrets were the trees hiding and what accomplishments were boasting out proudly when the sun hit them? I turned my body and let my mind wonder as I watched the water flow downstream. I had experienced unexplained events in my life and so had my grandmother. As I watch the river move down stream I can’t help but wonder what more unexplained changes and mysteries that will form the river as it makes its way to its destination.