I didn’t get to know my grandfather. Even though I grew up visiting him up until he passed away when I was fifteen, I never got the chance to know him.
My grandfather suffered from early-onset Alzheimer’s. A majority of my life consisted of me witnessing him deteriorate mentally. I understood what the disease was, but it took a while for me to fully understand what it can do to a person.
This disease didn’t take everything at once. Instead, it would steal little bits here and there. My grandfather would begin asking the same question to me several times during one visit. When I was younger, I thought it was amusing and would actually count how many times a day he would ask “Have you seen any good movies lately?” The answer was always no. I figured even if I had, I didn’t want to explain it over and over.
I don’t have many memories of doing a lot with my grandfather. What I do remember is sitting in his room, on my grandmother’s chair, watching Harry Potter movies with him. I never finished any of them, and I couldn’t even tell you which ones we would watch, but I know that is what the movie was.
I happen to be one of the youngest of seven cousins. Three of my cousins are out of college, and have been for a while. One is graduating this year, one is a year ahead of me, and my younger cousin is graduating high school this year (10 month age gap). I’ve never told anyone before, but I’m jealous of my elder cousins. They were able to have a relationship with my grandfather before his disease began to take him away from us, and I never did. I’d hear stories from my mom or from my grandmother, but that wasn’t the same as being able to have a relationship with him.
I did get to hear some stories from my grandfather. He would tell my cousins and me stories of him growing up on a farm in Maine. I enjoyed hearing the stories several times in one day, because I felt like I was at least learning something about him. He’d tell us about how he came face to face with a HUGE moose and was absolutely terrified as he ran home, or when he and his brother hid in a bush after seeing a car (there weren’t cars where he was living) and ended up covered in fire ants. I still laugh when I think about that.
There comes a point where the disease really picks up the pace, and the deterioration becomes that much more obvious. I don’t remember the exact moment when I could tell my grandfather didn’t recognize me anymore, but I just knew. He’d never say my name, and would just smile whenever I hugged him. He was always smiling, no matter the circumstance.
He came to my eighth grade graduation with my grandmother, and even though I knew he didn’t know me at that point, it meant a lot to have him there. He didn’t talk, but he was smiling. I got to take a picture with him and my grandmother. It was nice.
(That's me in eighth grade with my grandmother and grandfather. I don't think he knew what was going on, but like I said, always smiling.)
I remember when the time finally came for him to go to a nursing home. I visited with my mom, and I felt uncomfortable the entire time. This wasn’t my grandfather. I didn’t know who this was. When it came time to leave, my mom asked if I wanted to hug him goodbye. I couldn’t get myself to.
He passed away November 24, 2013. About 3 ½ years ago. I’ve spent those years wishing I had gotten a chance to know him better. I listened to stories my family shared, I watched movies with him. That really doesn’t mean as much as I would like it to. I want to be able to say my grandfather loved being with me, but that’s hard to say when for most of my life, he didn’t even remember my name.
In Memoriam: Lawrence T. Bragel. January 21, 1939 - November 24, 2013
If you'd like to learn more about Alzheimer's, visit http://www.alz.org/