Story by Natalie Mietus.
Merriam Webster Dictionary defines memory as “the power of reproducing or recalling what has been learned and retained from activity or experience.” When first reading this definition, one word stood out to me in particular: power. Although it may seem expendable at times, the ability to remember one’s life experiences, feelings, and thoughts is a privilege. Our way of remembering our lives is just that: ours. No two people in this world can recall the same moment in their lives the same way, offering us each an opportunity to make our lives our own original stories. The complication with stories, however, is that others must share them to stay alive. We can each make unique marks on this world, but without our voices to speak out, we are left with the perceptions of others to carry on our legacies. My grandfather lost his battle with Alzheimer’s in 2014. Writing this message today, I hope to carry on the legacy of my grandfather, Steve Mizerik, and to support the families and individuals who have been affected by Alzheimer’s in their lives.
Growing up, the days my grandparents would come to visit town were my favorite times of the year. Weeks in advance, I marked my Disney-themed calendar with a bright pink marker and counted down until I could see them face-to-face. As I got older, I began to notice a change in my grandfather. It seemed as though with every visit, my grandfather was acting less and less like himself. He no longer knew all the words to our favorite Frank Sinatra songs on his record player, his favorite war stories and knock-knock jokes was reiterated more so than usual, and he consistently lost items in his home. In addition to this, I found my grandfather asking more and more questions but soon after forgetting their answers. My biggest tipoff that something was wrong was the day that my grandfather officially forgot my name.
At that moment, my life felt like a movie. The way I saw it, the only reasonable explanation could be that it wasn’t really my grandfather before me but instead a paid actor who wasn’t good at his job. This was my first true encounter with Alzheimer’s and the pain that accompanied it from a loved one’s view. Although I was physically seeing my grandfather, he wasn’t the same man I grew up with. He could still make me laugh and loved his grandchildren unconditionally, but the world seemed completely foreign to him–something he often described as dark and lonely. It pains me to think about all the thoughts that must have crossed his mind when nothing around him could contribute the same familiarity and comfort that it used to.
The best decision I ever made was looking at the situation as a chance for a new beginning–and an opportunity to get to know my grandfather in a way that I never had prior. Each time we saw each other, he could introduce himself to me all over again, and I did the same. From there, we could review the basics–our favorite colors, our favorite foods, or even just the things that made us smile, like sunny days and knock-knock jokes. I got to bring joy to his face when I played him his favorite music from his record player, even though he no longer remembered the words, and continuously heard him say, “Wow, this is a great song. I should listen to this more often”. Times like these made me love visiting my grandfather even more than I did as a kid–something I didn’t think could be a possibility. He got to experience life like it was the first time, which can be even more valuable sometimes than always knowing what to expect.
I hope that by sharing my grandfather’s story, anyone reading this will be inspired to look at Alzheimer’s from a new perspective. It is a painful, scary, and lonely illness, but there is a bright side to it – should we accept the challenge of finding it. This part of my life was something I certainly struggled with for much of my life, and I want to be a beacon of support for anyone else who may need it. As Merriam Webster Dictionary put it, having memories is indeed power. However, not all superheroes wear capes. Memories or not, my grandfather is my superhero. As I write this today, I consider Alzheimer’s to be his superpower.