This essay was originally written as a submission for the 2012 Alzheimer's Foundation of America College Scholarship Contest. It received the first runner-up award.
An unpretentious jelly jar filled with pennies occupies a small portion of my bookcase. It is not an attempt to be frugal, nor does it have numismatic purposes; I do not even know the number of pennies contained therein. Rather, my jar of pennies serves as a memorial of the fondest memory I have with my grandfather, Stan Julin, who died last summer of Alzheimer's disease.
For much of my grandpa's life, he had a unique disdain for pennies, seeing them as paltry. At the end of each day, he would empty his pockets of change into a jar. Once, when I was seven years old, my mom and I went to visit my grandparent's house and found Grandpa in the driveway with a wooden box, filled to the brim with pennies. Upon seeing me, he smiled and told me that if I weighed more than the box of pennies, he would give me the money it contained. Being only seven, I was thrilled at the prospect of earning that much money. The moment of truth arrived after my grandpa rigged a seesaw to compare my weight to that of the box. Stepping on one end of the board, I watched with amazement as the box opposite me slowly raised into the air! The 70-something dollars that the box contained was the largest sum of money I had ever owned. Although the money was promptly spent on a toy that was later sold at a garage sale for a tenth of its original price, the memory remains.
The memory, however, did not remain with my grandfather, for he developed Alzheimer's disease a few years later. The hardest five months of my life began at age 16, when he and my grandma moved in with my family in January of 2011.
Since his death in June, I have realized that the memories he lost could be equated with the pennies he accumulated over the years. With every memory he lost, it was like a penny dropped in a jar. The more the pennies in the jar accumulated, the less he had in his pocket. But all was not lost. Although both pennies and memory loss may have frustrated him, they have left me with priceless memories.
For most of my life, although we spent plenty of time together, I did not know my grandpa well. He was the quiet type who, having married an outgoing woman, was content to let his wife entertain the guests. Oftentimes he would sit over in the corner reading a book while Grandma and I watched a movie. It was not until he was in the latter stages of Alzheimer's disease that I finally grew to know the man behind the book. At that point, my mother started having him over to our house several times a week to provide a much-needed break for my grandmother. Being in school most of the time meant that it was not until the summer of my 11th-grade year that I was ever around for his visits. It was at this time that the first treasured pennies began to plink into my jar.
I rapidly discovered that Alzheimer's patients, although they may not remember what they ate 20 minutes before, often remember stories from their childhood or early adult years. This propensity provided a new opportunity for me to develop a relationship with my grandpa, and so began a favorite activity for the two of us. I found that, as he was telling a story, he enjoyed having me Google different details of the memory, finding pictures, videos or audio clips of things that he was talking about. On one occasion, he told me about an old-time radio show called " The Shadow" that he listened to as a boy. I managed to find a podcast of it, and as it began to play, he grew excited and quoted the opening line of every show. "Who knows what evil lurks within the hearts of men? The Shadow knows!" You could see the boyish glee flash in his green eyes -- the same eyes that no longer recognized some of his own family members. Plink! The first penny fell into my jar.
I will never forget once when my family had left my grandparents in Orlando and traveled to Atlanta for Christmas. With snow blanketing the ground Christmas day, we excitedly called my grandparents, only to hear my grandma's crying voice on the other end of the line. Grandpa had gotten confused and run away. About a half-hour later, we got the call saying he was safely home again, but it was on that day that we decided what I had been dreading: Upon our arrival home, my grandparents would move in with my family. Plink!
Change for an Alzheimer's patient is decidedly stressful because it alters the few things they still know. Thus, moving in with us was upsetting to my grandpa; and on the first morning, he decided to "reorganize" our living room. This was our first of many experiences with his organizational skills, and it was rather amusing. "This place is a dump!" we heard him mutter as he rearranged the flower arrangement, pulled the pillows off the couches and hid the drink coasters. Later that day, my dad took him on a walk, and my grandfather asked him if they were in the neighborhood where my father resided. Upon receiving the affirmative, Grandpa told him, "I thought I did better for you!" Plink! Plink!
For a couple of months, my grandpa's escape attempts were quite frequent. Alarms were mounted on the doors, and someone had to be on constant watch. With Alzheimer's disease, the brain does not reset itself without a specific trigger of a foundational memory. In my grandpa's case, taking a walk was frequently the source of such a trigger. However, in the same way that a walk could reset his brain, it could just as likely end in an escape attempt. Half of the walks I took with him either began or ended with me chasing him down the road -- not because we were playing tag or any other light-hearted game, but because he would get it in his head that I wanted to harm him. I would have to chase him down and convince him that I was just his loving grandson. To the neighbors whose yards I chased him through, we must have been an amusing sight. A 16-year-old boy chasing a 74-year-old man with his shoes on wrong is an amusing sight to anyone but the 16-year-old boy. However, as miserable as it may have been at the time, it deeply affected me. Plink!
All the hours I spent chasing him down the road were worth it for the opportunity to get to know my grandfather on those same walks. On one such walk he uttered some nonexistent word that sounded like nothing more than gibberish and asked me if I had ever heard of that word. Being the brilliant linguist that I am, I naturally replied in the negative. Having himself realized that it was not even a real word, he began to laugh and replied, "Neither have I!" Plink!
Happy times were not entirely absent from those hard five months. My favorite memory occurred during one of his last responsive days. After dinner, I noticed a glum expression on Grandpa's face. In an attempt to replace his somber look with a smile, I goofily began to dance around the kitchen. "Come on, Grandpa, dance with me!" I shouted. Never dreaming my stoic grandfather would join me, I was shocked when he began to move to an unheard rhythm and replied to my invitation with, "Well, I guess it couldn't hurt." The next 10 minutes were spent with my family and me dancing around the kitchen while Grandpa busted moves never seen before. "Stan, I never knew you had it in you! Where'd you learn to dance like that?" inquired my mom regarding his newfound talent. To which my grandpa matter-of-factly replied, "You just gotta get in the zone." Plink!
After two weeks of being confined to a hospice bed, my grandfather finally found rest through death on June 3, 2011. Although those five months may have been the most trying months of my life, I find myself missing them. All of the memories that were miserable at the time have been miraculously transformed into good memories -- memories that I will forever cherish. Every time my grandpa stole my homework, ran away or inconvenienced me, I now fondly recall. Those pennies that my grandpa disposed of as waste have been turned into my treasure. It was through taking care of my grandfather that I learned what a misconception it is that Alzheimer's disease causes memories to be lost. The memories are not forgotten; they are just shifted, collecting like pennies in a jar. For every memory my grandfather lost, there is one I gained.
Reprinted with permission from the Alzheimer's Foundation of America. Head over to AFA Teens, a branch of AFA that seeks to raise awareness about Alzheimer's and engage young people in the cause, for more information and resources.