THE BLOG
08/13/2014 02:36 pm ET | Updated Oct 12, 2014

Genetic Hand-Me-Downs

My grandmother, Loretta Sinnott Brown, called me "snippy snooper" as a young boy because I was always "snooping around," asking too many questions, forever wanting to know the minutia of life. She must have had a premonition that I'd become a journalist. She and my maternal grandfather, George Brown -- Manhattan born, an earnest man who had owned several Upper East Side brownstones and munificently forgave missed rents during the Depression with a heart of the size of SoHo -- lived in Westchester County in a classic red brick two-story home, a short walk from Rye Beach on Long Island Sound at the mouth of New York Harbor. We affectionately called my grandfather, "Daddy George."

Once or twice a week, my mother, Virginia, took me and two of my sisters over to their house. Grandma was petite, short, and thin, a woman of incalculable resolve -- perseverance that she clearly passed down to my mother. Daddy George was handsome, gentle, and erudite, an intellectual in his day -- small in stature, large in bounty. He didn't talk much, as we observed as kids; Grandma did all the chatting, distracting us with sandwiches and desserts, piping hot chocolate in winter in a tall steaming glass, and in summer, fresh lemonade and blackberries from the backyard. I spent much time with her in the kitchen, snooping around and playing with her dog, a Mexican Chihuahua named Poncho, appropriate in dimension for the household. Mom, meanwhile, sat on the couch visiting with her dad, trying to make conversation. The moment seemed awkward.

In time, I began to realize that something was terribly wrong with my grandfather. His sentences were becoming shorter as his voice trailed off. He didn't recognize us on occasion, and he stared a lot in withdrawal. Often, he just shook his head, in an acknowledgment when asked a question. I thought he was hard of hearing.

There were times, my mother told me later, when Daddy George, in great confusion, would walk to the Rye train station without telling anyone, taking an express to Grand Central so he could stroll the streets of the Upper East Side -- a place that made him feel whole. He was trying to go home to his office on 28th street. The local New York cops knew him and would phone my grandmother, then made sure he returned safely. No one seemed to grasp what was happening.

Daddy George, the doctors said, had "hardening of the arteries," the cipher in those days for Alzheimer's. "Your grandfather is very sick," Mom would tell us.

I'll never forget the day we came for a visit, and all the dining room furniture, including the mahogany table on which I had done my grammar school homework, was gone -- replaced with a stark hospital bed. Daddy George could no longer walk up the steep oak stairs, and was confined to the bed.

The deterioration had a solemn impact on me. My grandfather, who had been slowly waning before us, was now in a deep slide.

I will never forget the day he died. Still haunts me. When I returned to the red brick house, the hospital bed was gone and the dining room furniture was back in place, as if nothing had happened, yet I knew nothing would ever be the same.

And it wasn't. Years later I began noticing the symptoms in my mother. I often saw her standing at the kitchen window overlooking a corn patch with Rye Brook in the distance. She was talking to herself, fully engaged in conversation. I wasn't sure with whom. At first, I thought it was a way of deflecting the stress of raising a large Irish Catholic family with a collective attention span of a young yellow lab. The disengaging increased: misplacing objects, loss of memory, poor judgment, and yes, the rage -- warning signs years later that I began noticing in myself, genetic hand-me-downs.

In retirement, with my father on Cape Cod, my mother's symptoms worsened over the years. None of us wanted to accept it. We were in collective denial, but the signs were undeniable. She began sticking knives into sockets, brushing her teeth with liquid soap, refusing to shower, not recognizing people she knew, and experiencing frightful hallucinations, holes opening in the floor and demonic figures trying to pull her down. Still, she had purpose, resolve instilled by her mother. In her Alzheimer's, she became a caregiver to my father, confined to a wheelchair with severe circulation disease.

Unremittingly, she cared for him, always refusing to succumb to disability. She encouraged me in my own slow progression with Alzheimer's; she taught me how to fight, how to live with Alzheimer's, how never to give into it. My mom became my role model in the resolute life she lived.

Out of necessity and an innate love for one another, my parents ultimately morphed into one. Mom became my father's legs, fetching for him what he needed; dad became her intellect, her raison d'être.

Then, one late Sunday afternoon in 2006 on a visit with my parents, I finally got it. Hit me like a dummy in a crash test. I brought my mother a photo of all her children from a recent family reception, and she couldn't name one of them, including me. She had no clue, and was still driving at the time. As I left my parents' home that night, I could only think of the jarring interjection in the movie Jaws when Chief Brody first encountered the mammoth shark: "You're gonna need a bigger boat!"

We had a leaky dinghy instead. Two weeks later, on a frenzied July Fourth weekend -- with my dad continuing to suffer from acute circulation disorders and internal bleeding -- my mother took me aside, and said she was about done.

"I don't know how much longer I can do this," she told me. "I'm not sure how long I can hold on."

Instinctively as the oldest boy in the family, I reassured her that all of us had her back, but I felt this penetrating sinking feeling that we were at the precipice of a steep cliff and ground was giving way. Hours later, I got an emergency call that dad once again had been rushed to Cape Cod Hospital in Hyannis. Mom was with him. The nurse told me to hurry.

I met my parents in the emergency room, filled to the brim with the walking wounded of summer. It took 36 hours to get my father into a hospital room. About 28 hours into the ordeal, I noticed that my father, sitting in his wheelchair in an emergency room cubicle, was bleeding onto the floor. In a panic, I tried to divert my mom's attention. It was too late. She was horrified. I could see it in her face; she was done.

"I'll get the doctor, Mom, don't worry," I said as I raced for the door.

She grabbed my right elbow from behind.

"Greg, would you take over," she asked quietly and in unusual peace.

"Yeah, Mom, I'm getting the doctor now," I said. "I'm getting the doctor."

"No," she replied as I continued for the door. "Would you PLEASE take over?"

I stopped in my tracks.

Something inside me said that she was saying goodbye. I turned and looked into her eyes. It was as if someone had pulled down a curtain. As I watched her, I had the feeling of seeing a person, who had been holding on to a dock on an outgoing tide, let go. I saw her drift. Within 10 minutes, she curled up like a kitten in my dad's hospital bed, while he sat unconscious, bleeding in his chair.

Who are the parents now, I thought?

Greg O'Brien's latest book, On Pluto: Inside the Mind of Alzheimer's, will be published this summer. He is also the subject of the short film, "A Place Called Pluto," directed by award-winning filmmaker Steve James, online at livingwithalz.org. In 2009, he was diagnosed with Early Onset Alzheimer's. His maternal grandfather and his mother died of the disease. O'Brien carries a marker gene for Alzheimer's.