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What I Didn't Learn From Books

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By the time I was 10-years-old, I knew everything.

School had taught me the basics: how to add and subtract, how to write a decent book report, the names and capitals of all 50 states. And every answer that wasn't provided by school was supplied by books.

Harry Potter was my role model in dealing with bullies and unwelcome attention. Divorce? If ever that happened, Amber Brown had navigated the way through for me. Surviving in the wild on my own would be simple with Julie and the Wolves as my guide.

At age 10, I was prepared. I could earn A's in class because I had paid attention in school and I could knock down any of life's obstacles because I paid attention to my books. When one of life's lessons showed up to take me on a journey, I would not be weathering hitherto uncharted territory; I would be passing through the familiar ground I had already dealt with in my books.

I knew of every kind of adversity that could possibly present itself, and I would know what to do if it did. I was 10-years-old, and I was sure of this.

***

Eight years ago, my great-grandmother was living alone in a condo in the city. It was an ugly place, by all modern standards -- a squat, bland, brick building that sat too close to the highway and had an excellent view of the grocery store across the street. But for 10 years, it was a favorite weekend destination for my family.

Every Saturday, we piled into our glorious red minivan and braved the weekend traffic. Every Saturday my brother raced to ring the doorbell, my sister pounded on the door, and I waved like a maniac at a second floor window. And every Saturday my great-grandmother, my Boki, would appear at the window and show off a gap-filled smile before retreating to buzz us in.

I was 10, and I was a know-it-all, but I wasn't naïve; I knew my great-grandmother would stop coming to the window one day. I knew she would die. I didn't want to think about it, but I knew what the inevitable was. My books had taught me this.

I was also convinced that the end was nowhere near. Boki may have been 90, a fact of which she was extremely proud, but it really was just a number. She was still steadily climbing the stairs to her condo, fearlessly trekking through the streets to do the grocery shopping, and expertly nursing the plants that tickled her living room ceiling.

We were all certain that this was the way it would be until Boki herself decided to stop. My parents were sure because they were grown-ups and knew the ways of the universe. My sister was sure because she was old enough to be told the ways of the universe. My brother was sure because he knew Boki was invincible. And I was sure because that was how the wise and resilient grandparents in my books had gone before -- if they even went at all before the story ended.

It took a sudden and eye-opening series of events to prove to us that we had all been fooling ourselves.

First, Boki did not come to the window one Saturday. She had had a stroke: the kind that only required a two-day stay in a cold, efficient hospital, but one that served as a wake-up call for all the grown-ups.

Then, Boki did not return to her condo on the second floor of that shabby brown building. The decision making had shifted from away from her and into the hands of her grandchildren, my mother and her siblings. Instead, Boki came home with us, to our blue cookie cutter house and its extra bed.

This arrangement did not work out the way everyone had planned. Everything we had failed to see while Boki was downtown in her condo and we were sitting in our suburb was suddenly revealed. We had anticipated for everyday to feel like Saturday, with Boki being there to constantly grant us her toothless grin. She wasn't, however, the Boki of Saturdays in the city.

She was a Boki who sat at the window and watched the cars meander past and the leaves drop from the trees. She asked us if she had eaten lunch and whether we had talked to people whose names we did not know. Everything we had written off as eccentricity in old age and excused as the natural behavior of our 90-year-old matriarch was recast with the realization that this was Alzheimer's.

For the first time in my life, my books had failed me. Nothing, not a single chapter, paragraph, or line, had hinted that the alternative to death during peaceful slumber, surrounded by loved ones, or by cholera in a Conestoga wagon was something far less dignified and melodramatic, something much more painful to witness. For once, my books had no road map for how to proceed.

I suddenly found myself writing my own manual for this new, unprecedented situation. When my Boki asked me what day it was, I answered her. When she asked again three minutes later, I learned to simply answer again. When she told me a story so rambling and incomprehensible, I realized I didn't have to understand; I only needed to smile and hold her hand. When she became a different person, told me people were stealing from her and shouted for me to get out of her room, I did what she wanted and left. Then I came right back to continue to be her great-granddaughter, whether she knew I was or not.

It broke my mother's heart to do the thing she had promised her grandmother she would never do when we moved her into a nursing home. The building was equally as squat and equally as bland as the condo we had already left behind in the city, but there couldn't have been a starker difference between the two. Where there had been garish green carpet shaded by the shiny fronds of eight-foot plants was bare linoleum and a fake ficus. Homemade soup was replaced by softened meatloaf.

But whatever the nursing home lacked in homey touches, it made up for in care for the residents, able to give Boki what we could no longer provide. The nurses and aides could help her make it through the present day, and we devoted ourselves to living with her in whichever world of the past she inhabited.

We continued to pile into the still-glorious red minivan, continued to brave the traffic every weekend, but now, my brother raced to press the button that let us into a muffled lobby, my sister knocked softly on the door to Boki's room, and we all waved like maniacs when we saw her.

I hated Alzheimer's for invading our lives and stealing away my great-grandmother. I hated it for making my mother cry and forcing us all to confront the inescapable finale. But I needed this disease and my great-grandmother to tell me I did not know everything. I needed it to show me there were stories the books left out, stories that I needed to discover and write for myself.

Audrey is second runner-up in this year's Alzheimer's Foundation of America College Scholarship competition.

Essay reprinted with permission of the Alzheimer's Foundation of America (AFA). For more information about AFA and AFA Teens, visit www.alzfdn.org or www.afateens.org.