When we finally lost him there was no pouring out of eyes like when my brother called me in my dorm room and blurted out, “Sparky got hit by a car!” before even saying hello. When we lost him, I didn’t buckle against the wall and feel the sharp edges of dry cinder block scratch the length of my back like when I got the phone call in my classroom that said she’d been in an accident and she was gone and she’d never sit across from me in her desk/chair combo and listen to me drone on about nouns and verbs and figurative language. When we lost him–when the news finally spread from my mother’s lips and trailed through miles of telephone cable and through the wiry cord into the receiver and burrowed deep down in my consciousness–when I finally accepted he was gone forever and never coming back, it occurred to me I didn’t feel anything at all. Or, at least in my estimation, not what I was supposed to feel.
We’d watched him evaporate, my grandfather, from the man who sent birthday cards early every year and the man who showed up to Little League games when you never even told him about them to something much different. Faded. Strange. Alien. The changes were almost imperceptible at first. He’d lose his car keys and realize he’d been holding them in his hand the whole time or he’d stare off over your shoulder at a mysterious sunset that didn’t exist. Then the birthday cards stopped coming on time. And then they stopped coming altogether and we knew there’d be no coming back from it. The doctors had told us as much. Pick’s Disease. A death sentence. No, worse than a death sentence because at least a firing squad spares your thoughts and memories before blowing you into the beyond. At least a seat in the electric chair guarantees you some parting words. My grandfather was afforded none of that. He faded and faded and faded until one day my dorm room phone rang and he was gone.
And I was left feeling nothing, though maybe that’s not entirely honest. I did feel one thing: relief. Relief that he didn’t need to be a man he wasn’t born to be anymore. Relief that we didn’t have to go visit him in that dirty triage with the flickering lights and the nurses and doctors who saw him as just another quivering mouth to feed and another messy bed to clean. Relief that he could finally rest and by extension my parents, his caregivers and most ardent supporters, could rest too.
And if I really think about it, that feeling of relief was almost immediately followed by other feelings. Much less desirable ones, the most debilitating of which was guilt. At not feeling devastated. At not immediately breaking down and spilling out all of my tears the first moment I found out he was gone. The way I was supposed to. Guilt at not being able to do more to help. At being a helpless, worthless pile of nothing in the fight against my grandfather’s Alzheimer’s.
I drove the scarred asphalt of the Pennsylvania Turnpike that night from Reading all the way down to the Philadelphia area in silence, with only the sounds of the wind and the road prickling against the side of my car and, still, not a single tear crossed the dry plains of my face. But the guilt intensified. And the relief I had felt initially began to splinter away in tiny pieces like my grandfather’s memories had over the seven years prior.
And then I walked up the front steps of my parents’ house like I’d done a million time in my eighteen years of residence there, but it felt different this time. Empty. Drained of life. Still. And we talked about the next day’s funeral arrangements and flowers and prayer cards and the hours of the viewing and everything that meant absolutely nothing in the life of my grandfather. In his real life. The one he actually lived. And then we watched Letterman until my father’s eyelids drooped and he made his ways upstairs to sleep for the final time before he laid his own father to rest forever. And that’s when I felt the first warmth of sadness roll down one of my cheeks and then the other, until the tears poured down on my mother’s shoulder and the sobs wracked my body and my mother’s long, red nails made trails up my spine and her arms held me closer than I think they’d ever had before.
That’s when the relief and the guilt and the feelings of alienation all exploded in a single detonation and I realized that my grandfather had finally become my grandfather again, even if I’d never be able to see him or touch him or hear his voice for the rest of my life. It’s also when I realized there was only one way to beat Alzheimer’s and, without a doubt, the battle was destined to culminate in a single, swirling maelstrom of guilt, relief and despair. And happiness, too, if you happen to be strong enough to allow the memories–the real memories–to shine through the storm.
Frank Morelli is the author of the YA novel, NO SAD SONGS, the story of a high school senior who loses his parents and is thrust into the role of youth caregiver for his ailing grandfather, an Alzheimer’s patient. School Library Journal calls NO SAD SONGS “a must for any YA collection” and ALA/Booklist says the book is “full of heart and humor…and will make young readers take stock of their own parents’ responsibilities, and what it means to make sacrifices for the ones you love.”