“Right now I feel like am sitting in my grandmother’s living room, looking at the world through her lace curtains. From time to time, a gentle wind blows the curtains and changes the patterns through which I see the world. There are large knots in the curtains, and I cannot see through them.”
-Richard Taylor, Life With Alzheimer’s
Right now I am sitting in my grandmother’s living room. Her curtains are mossy green; her picture window looks out onto an afternoon lush with Houston spring. She watches cardinals and blue jays peck at seed in the grass. My grandmother, Gerda, is lovely. Her skin, olive, still smooth, belies her age. Her hands are strong, her eyes clear, her laugh charming and high, and we are losing her. My grandmother, Oma we call her, was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease last year. It would be difficult to know this, sitting beside her in her living room, watching her admire the birds. The disease grips her in subtle ways today, in perhaps less subtle ways tomorrow.
She still knows who I am. She knows the family, the basic facts. What she cannot retain are the immediacies, and each time I arrive at her door she asks me, “Why are you here? Where is Mommy?”
“California,” I say. “I’m in town to spend time with you this week.”
She grips her forehead, asks me when my mom is coming back.
“Tuesday,” I say, again. “She’ll be back Tuesday morning.”
I cannot know how deep this disease will pull her, and how fast. For now I am grateful for having to remind her only of the little things, and we flip through photo albums, side by side on the couch, her fat, white cat Tootie asleep in the space between us. Doctors say old photographs are good for the Alzheimer’s mind. Her childhood remains vivid: holidays atop jungle mountains, resorts shrouded in clouds, trans-Atlantic ocean liners, flowing gowns whose colors I imagine through the black and white of the photos. Oma was raised between Holland and the island of Java, in Indonesia, then the Dutch East Indies. For the Dutch, it was a prosperous time. Hers was a childhood spent in rooms without walls, with lounging cats and idle breezes.
Here now in Houston, her accent still pronounced after five decades in Texas, Oma recalls the names of cute boys in old-fashioned bathing suits, the details of her favorite outfits (“Oh, this one was brown,” she says, smiling; “So cute!” we squeal in unison), and the opening moments of her dance revues. Oma loved to dance. “I would dance by myself in an empty house,” she says, and closes her eyes. “I see myself dance.”
I get up to show her my rudimentary and ineptly executed ballet moves. Tendu, piquÃ©, grand pliÃ©.
“No elbows!” she exclaims, positioning her arms, patiently, as if strumming a harp. I try again. She watches, clasps her hands beneath her chin. “Ah,” she sighs, delighted. “Very nice!”
Oma and I have always been close. Her house is two miles from my parents’ house, and my sister and I grew up seeing her every day, pulling up the driveway in her Ford Fairmont, the Omamobile, delivering us strange and delicious Indonesian dishes for dinner. Of the nine members of my immediate family, I have always felt most like Oma. Daydreaming, skeptical, in love with the arts, hostile toward math, quick to judge and then laugh about it, Oma and I are cut from the same passionate and somewhat astringent cloth. We are the only two women in the family who covet jewelry. When something is absurd, we think it’s absurd. I love Oma’s beauty, her wit, her perfection of manners. I see in Oma, unfailingly, the woman like whom I hope to age. But now I think of her mind and I’m frightened of what her genes imply.
I remind her to take her afternoon pills, to eat. Alzheimer’s makes its sufferers obstinate and irritable. That she resists food is troubling. One must eat everything on one’s plate, she’s always told us. One must try all foods in order to be worldly, refined, poised.
“Don’t boss me,” she replies. “I’m not 100.” Then she asks if I’m alone at my parents’ house. She remembered they were traveling. When I say yes, she shakes her head in disapproval.
“If you’re not 100,” I say, “then I’m not 10.”
We laugh and decide to play Scrabble. The highlight is my construction of the word “vagina,” followed by Oma’s addition of an “s,” making this bit of plural anatomy the vertical center point and constant amusement of our game.
Today Oma plays Scrabble with relative ease, but it makes me sad. Tomorrow her memory of this game will have vanished. It will, in fact, never have become a memory. It is my challenge, not hers, to linger in the moment. To enjoy this, and later to etch it onto my heart.
I coax her into eating a chicken salad from McDonald’s, and she settles in with her slokje. Two parts vodka to one part dry vermouth, and ice. In a tall glass. A long drink, she says. Wheel of Fortune flickers on the television, the volume low, the arrows thrumming quietly against the pegs of the wheel. We both used to be so good at this show; it’s our tradition to watch it. But tonight we are terrible, and I have no excuse.
The room is cozy once I switch on a few lamps. Oma, in her spot on the couch, sits across from an antique wooden cabinet holding 22 photographs of cats-my cats, my mom’s cats, my sister’s cats, my cousin’s cats, anonymous greeting card cats. “I looove my toeteladis,” she says. I wonder how I might memorize the sound of her elongated O’s, the beguiling and particular singsong of her accent when she’s feeling good.
I finish off a McFlurry with M&Ms and pour a glass of chardonnay. We marvel at the globularity of Pat Sajak’s head and discuss the merits of the early-evening cocktail. “My father was suspicious of a man who wouldn’t have a drink,” Oma says. “We should be having this with a little hapje, a little cheese and bread.”
“And salami,” I say, and we both take a sip. The chardonnay is extra-sweet paired with the aftertaste of soft-serve.
“When I was young it seems like we were always drinking and eating,” she says. “Before your evening drink you had tea, with cake, and before that lunch. And you had your wine with dinner.”
“The meals must have been so long,” I say.
Oma scratches the top of Tootie’s head. “Oh yes,” she says, nodding, “and then you had your coffee afterwards of course, and always your dessert.”
We are quiet for a few moments, she with her numbered recollections, me gathering them up into my own reveries of fine, languid dinners in the Far East. Alzheimer’s takes often, and seldom gives. Today was a gift.
Hedwig Village, where I grew up in Houston, is not in fact a village. It is 0.9 square miles of flat, wooded neighborhood, set among three other similar and indistinguishable “villages.” Oma lives in Piney Point Village. I went to elementary school in Bunker Hill Village. My mother used to teach in Hunter’s Creek Village. I ride my bike to Oma’s house through these “villages” and note how little has changed in the eight years I’ve lived away. The woman two doors over still stands on her front lawn, peddling gossip and watering the St. Augustine. Teenagers in jacked-up F-150s still run the stop sign outside our house. The parking lot of St. Cecilia Catholic Church down the block remains dutifully at capacity on Sunday morning.
These villages compose a community where good ol’ boys with questionable Enron ties share property lines with graybeards in khaki jumpsuits, where quiet modernist gems are razed in favor of monuments to the marriage of new money and poor taste.
This is not the neighborhood to which Oma and my grandfather, Opa, moved in 1954. This is a place made vulgar by lack of nuance. Oma’s modest brick house, once one of many modest brick houses on a shady cul-de-sac, will soon be sandwiched by two towering stucco boxes. She reconciles this notion of progress by shaking her head rhetorically when she opens the door for me. “What are they doing out there?” she says.
Today she is confused. “What day is it?” she asks. “I’m such a zombie. I’m so mad at myself.”
Mornings tend to be this way. She sits on the couch, leans forward, rubs her temples, scolds herself. “I’m so vervalant,” she says. Loosely translated as “defiant,” vervalant is a word Oma uses often to make light of her situation. Watching her, I see that she understands her mind is losing hold of things she knows, even at her age, she should remember. Beyond this, I’m not sure what she makes of it. I imagine the Proustian disorientation of waking up in an unfamiliar room, believing it at first to be familiar. The fog of sleeping too late. But for Oma the room rearranges itself only the slightest bit, the fogs lifts but leaves behind a mist. In the mornings, she doesn’t want to move, she doesn’t want to speak. If I ask how she slept, or what she ate for breakfast, she waves her hand and sighs, “Past history.”We listen to audio tapes her parents sent from Holland to Houston in the fifties, back when long-distance phone calls were glamorous. The tapes were a way for them to hear one another’s voices without the expense. My great-grandmother, Over-Oma we call her, sounds far away on the recording, in time and distance. She speaks Dutch, laughs, asks questions of my young mother in English; her voice is kind.
Though she has listened to these tapes before, Oma seems astonished to hear her mother’s voice.
“My mother,” she says, “so sweet.” My great-grandfather, Over-Opa, takes his turn on the tape. I barely understand a word, but his low voice is magic. Oma’s brother, Bert, tells a funny story. These are the voices most familiar to Oma, and we are in the room with them. “It makes me sad,” she says. But she doesn’t want to turn it off.
Over-Oma begins to play Chopin. The song is muffled and haunting, a waltz. “I still see her playing,” Oma says, running her fingers over a ghost piano. Oma is saddened by these memories, but she is also momentarily pulled from the stress of forgetting. Do these years seem closer to her than the present? The saddest and strangest part is that the future, with its necessity for context and pattern, is gone. I move forward, and Oma is thrust back. I close my eyes and see her suspended over a great funnel, growing darker as it narrows. I reach for her hand, and pull her out just in time.
It’s early afternoon now. Jeopardy isn’t on for a couple of hours. The Houston Chronicle is dreadful reading. Oma wants to sit. But even in this mood, she’ll talk about the war. She will always talk about the war.
February 5, 1941: Oma’s first love, Fritz, is shot down at 19 in the Battle of Singapore. His framed photograph hangs in her kitchen. March 9, 1942: the Dutch surrender the islands to the Japanese. Oma and the family fill a chest with valuables and bury it beneath the garage. Bert goes on a bike ride one afternoon and doesn’t return home. Shortly afterward, Over-Opa is taken away by Japanese soldiers. Both he and Bert are sent to work camps; it will be four years before Oma and her mother see them again. Over-Oma sends secret letters, rolled up inside bars of soap, until the Japanese cut off communication. Japanese officials move into the house and she and her mother are sent to cordoned-off housing for Dutch women.
The stories do not become glad until after the war, when she meets Opa, a pilot in the Dutch Air Force. We stare at a picture of the two of them, walking arm-in-arm in Sydney. Oma touches the photo, in love with him. He is striking. “So handsome!” she exclaims. She wishes I could have known him, and I do too. I tell her what scattered memories I do have, of Opa throwing a beach ball to me in the backyard, of him, after he got sick, shuffling across her living room in a plaid robe and a pair of slippers with sailboats on top.
To this day, Oma puts cotton balls in her ears during thunderstorms, dreams of the war. If she loses these memories, I worry, she’ll lose herself. When I think of the possibility that she’ll lose Opa, I stop short.
Tom Cruise is on Oprah now, so the conversation turns to Oma’s devoted crush on Paul Newman, our mutual soft-spot for blue eyes, and boys in general. “Don’t make them jealous,” Oma says, then raises her shoulders. “Well, maybe a little bit.” We conclude that Tom Cruise, while cute in Risky Business, is no Robert Redford.
Later, as I’m leaving, she lets me ring the big bronze dinner bell by her front door, a treasure unearthed from beneath her childhood garage. On the ride home, I pass beneath old oaks and razed lots where I remember old oaks to have been. The woman two doors over is pulling into her driveway when I get home, and I think of the time she called my mother after a thunderstorm. The power had been out for a couple of hours. “What is going on here?” she’d said. “It’s like we’re living in a third-world country.”
She doesn’t realize it, but Oma has lost her sense of smell. It’s another cruel twist of this disease, that its sufferers should lose the most eloquent trigger of memory. It is the sense that cannot be conjured and evades description; when it is inaccessible, it is gone. Oma can no longer verify whether the musty aroma lingering in the spines of her old books is her childhood home. Or her first home with Opa. Or something else entirely. I wish I had asked her sooner.
There’s cinnamon and damp wood and jasmine in the spine of The Soul of the White Ant, a study of South African termites by Eugene M. Marais, her mother’s favorite book. This was Over-Oma’s copy, published June 3, 1937. Oma, dressed today in a pretty turquoise house dress, tells me that her mother was fascinated by small insects, particularly ants and termites. I remind her that as I child I wanted to be an entomologist studying weird bugs in the rainforest. We laugh because it’s ridiculous, the thought of me as any sort of scientist.
I read aloud to Oma from the first chapter, “The Beginnings of a Termitary”:
The functioning of the community or group-psyche of the termitary is just as wonderful and mysterious to a human being, with a very different kind of psyche, as telepathy or other functions of the human mind which border on the supernatural. When one wishes to write of all these wonders, one is bewildered by the embarrass de richesses. It’s hard to know where to begin.
Oma smiles; she is listening.
The beginning of a termitary dates from the moment when the termites fly, after rain and usually at dusk, in order to escape their innumerable enemies. Even here we see a remarkable instance of the wonders of instinct. The termites beginning their thrilling flight know nothing about enemies. They have never been outside the nest before. The peril of existence is to them a closed book, and yet nine times out of ten they do not fly until the birds are safely in their nests.
Perhaps Alzheimer’s is similar, in reverse. The individual, with time, shedding gradations of self, until what’s left must function on feeling and impulse alone. The body becoming a vessel to the inchoate mind.
Oma perks up in the evenings. Where she used to fret, she is almost blithe. Oma, whose dreams were always vivid recollections of the war, of long-ago conversations, of Opa, now has nightmares which wake her shaking; the past wailing at the door, fists beating, locked out. Still, she suspects only that she getting old. It’s an especially insidious disease that devours a mind without revealing itself to the very mind it’s devouring. Or an especially merciful one. I make Oma a peanut butter and honey sandwich and suggest that we play hangman, another classic in our repertoire of word games. Oma guesses my word, “California,” almost immediately. Then she gives me a phrase, four words, punctuated with a question mark. It takes her some time to count out the letters. Before I know it my man is hanging hopelessly from t
e gallows. We’re l
ughing because Oma keeps forgetting letters and I keep getting confused. Finally, I give up and watch as she fills in the blanks, one by one, in her disciplined print:
ARE YOU MY GRANDDAUGHTER?
I don’t know what to do, so I say of course I’m your granddaughter! My tone is bright but my heart is breaking. It’s difficult to accept that she’s asking me this question in earnest. I know she has asked my mother similar questions, but here now, with her, I am not prepared. She recognizes that I am familiar, that my mother is familiar, but the context is clouded. She cannot place our parts in the play. I want to ask her, if she isn’t sure I’m her granddaughter, who she thinks I might be? I won’t ask though, as it would only confuse her more. She looks at the page with an absent smile, gestures as if to indicate that of course she knows I’m her granddaughter, and we move on, back to the present.
I tell her I’m going to see La BohÃ‹me tonight, one of Opa’s favorite operas.
“Oh yes,” she says. “I’ve seen it many times.”
“Opa’s favorite was Tosca,” I say. She told me this a few years ago.
“Oh he loved it,” she says. “Every Saturday morning he played it so loud, all through the house!”
I have a collection of random memories here: Oma picking me up from elementary school, her gold bracelets clinking against the plastic Fairmont steering wheel. The brown vinyl sunglasses case that hung from her keychain, tapping the steering column as she made a turn. The symphony or opera playing low on her radio, and the muffled male voices of NPR. I remember thinking that whatever those men were saying wouldn’t pertain to me for a very long time. Oma is wearing the same gold bracelets today.
She asks me if I’m going to the opera alone. I say yes, and she doesn’t like this at all. I assure her that I’ll be careful in the parking garage, and as I’m leaving, promise to call her at intermission.
Of the (limited) pleasures Houston has to offer, including New York-quality ballet and opera companies, the Menil Collection, a house made entirely of beer cans, and ethereal fried chicken, driving from the Westside to downtown along Memorial Drive counts among them. The route, which cuts through the largest (and what feels like the only) park in the city, is especially pleasing when traveled in my father’s 1984 Turbo Diesel Mercedes sedan. One would not guess, rounding the bend at Buffalo Bayou and glimpsing the skyline, that Houston is a city without zoning restrictions. Downtown, as seen from Memorial Drive, is H-Town’s most flattering profile.
The opera is beautiful; I imagine Oma listening to O soave fanciulla, with her family in Holland, with Opa in this very theater. Oh lovely girl, oh sweet face bathed in the soft moonlight. I see you in a dream, I’d dream forever! When I call during intermission she sounds sleepy and content, genuinely excited that I’m at the opera. She asks again that I call her afterward; she wants to know I’m home safely.
It’s unsurprising that observing Alzheimer’s from the outside augments one’s own awareness of memory. Peering into the orchestra pit, I recall Oma taking me to see The Nutcracker. It occurs to me that A Passage to India is her favorite book, and that I haven’t read it. Driving home, down a street near her house which a few years ago endured a prolonged overhaul, I think of Oma joking about the big orange sign on the sidewalk: Slow Men At Work. I pour a late-night bowl of cereal and remember the way Oma, when she was staying with us, would take all the cereal boxes out of the pantry in the morning and place them on the kitchen table. I glance at the mail and think of the letters, into the hundreds, that we exchanged when I was in college. She always told me to throw them out, but I’ve kept every one.
“I’ve been meaning to write,” she says to me often these days, “but I just keep forgetting.”
“It’s okay,” I say, “I keep forgetting too.”
A part of me is glad she hasn’t written. I broke down reading her last letter, about a year ago, right after she was diagnosed. Oma, always the clever poet, wrote in uncharacteristically wavering cursive:
Dearest Yvonne, I am not good at writing notes. (Maybe I wrote you already?) My mind is kaput. I feel I just wrote to you. Help me out! What day is it? March 12? You are taking care of yourself? I read your article! I write so sloppy-old age. Mommy is taking good care of me all the time. Don’t worry. Don’t work too hard-I know I wrote this already! Tell me if I am losing it? Sweet hugs & thoughts & kisses for all, especially you. Love, Oma
I cried because I sensed the first tremor of the coming avalanche, and because I understood the best we could do was brace ourselves and hold her close to cushion the fall.
Peripheral reminders are everywhere. A block of Post-it Notes invokes memories of marathon scavenger hunts at Oma’s house. I see an advertisement for a bridal store on television and realize I’ve never asked her about her wedding. These reminders are not piercing because they’re nostalgic; they are piercing because they come with the knowledge that for Oma, they are dropping away. There’s not enough time. I remember, and she forgets, I remember, and she forgets; a devastating and infuriating stasis. If only I could scream at this disease and scare it off, I would gather the memories to make her whole again. I cannot conceive of what it’s like for my mother, her heroic caretaker.
It’s 12:45 a.m. and I’m brushing my teeth when the phone rings. It startles me to see her name on the caller ID this late.
“Yvonne!” she says.
“Are you okay?” I ask. “Why are you awake?”
“You said you would call me,” she says. “I’ve been waiting for you to call.”Hours ago, when I called my mother, she told me she’d just talked to Oma, and that she was settled in for the night.
“I’m so sorry Oma,” I say. “I thought you were asleep.”
I’d assumed she had forgotten.
“Noooo,” she says, her voice clear. “You said you would call when you got home.”
In the melody of that wonderful extended “O,” stern and sweet, I hear her unmistakably. My grandmother. I hold on tight.
Yvonne Georgina Puig is a writer living in Austin and Los Angeles. Her work has appeared in Variety, Los Angeles Magazine, the Austin-American Statesman, and GOOD Magazine. She is an editor at Thisrecording.com.