Hey it's Hannah, I'm your granddaughter. I'm the blonde girl in the pictures we put in your room; I'm the one who comes to visit on Sunday and Wednesday nights. Although you may not always remember me, I can never stop thinking about you. The people at the nursing home said it's only going to get worse and that your memory will soon be gone. Maybe all you need is a reminder, a reminder of the great life you lived and of all your accomplishments. You have impacted my life in so many ways and so has the horrible disease they named Alzheimer's. I want to take this time to tell you all of that because even if someday you don't know me, I believe you will know that I love you.
It's sometimes hard to imagine what you were like before you had Alzheimer's because the way I see you now has become so routine. However, I always think of you sitting in our living room watching sports with all the guys. I remember you saving us spots downtown when we would want to go see the fireworks on the Fourth of July. My favorite memory of you is your endless support for whatever I chose to do. You came to all my in-town basketball games, and I have never heard someone say, "That's my granddaughter" more proudly than you. You would even walk over to my team in the middle of our huddle to wave and tell me "hi;" there was nothing that made me happier. As I sit in my bed crying and questioning why there is such a devastating disease and why it had to happen to you, I hold on to these memories. It's my turn to repay you for being the amazing person you can barely remember being.
I think you are the strongest person to have to go through something like this and the worst part is people aren't even aware of what you are going through. The misconception of it being an "old person" disease should be rid of. You are only 69, 57 when you first showed signs. You are a young grandparent to me. It is pure torture to watch you cry at not being able to see Grandma all the time, and it physically pains me to not have a good enough explanation when you ask why you have to stay at the nursing home and we get to leave. That is the first lesson I have learned: There aren't answers for everything and sometimes life isn't fair. However, that isn't an excuse for not doing anything to make life fair and it's definitely not an excuse for giving up. That is why on September 22, downtown was filled with people who hadn't given up. One thousand people held onto the hope for a better future and participated in an Alzheimer's walk. Each walker received a paper flower on which we wrote the name of the person we were walking for and stuck it in the ground as we left that day. As I was leaving the flower in the ground, I watched it spinning and spinning and how it wouldn't stop. That's when I thought of you. You have been stuck with something horrible, but you keep going and going. You have taught me a second lesson: perseverance.
They say there's no cure for Alzheimer's, but that doesn't mean there will never be one. While you are sitting in an Alzheimer's unit struggling to remember how to eat dinner every night, it is my job to raise awareness and get more people involved and caring. I wish you could see how much everyone loves you as much as I get to witness. Your absence on Christmas Eve was strongly felt as we set one less plate at the dinner table, and I can honestly say the best Christmas present I could've received was seeing you a few days prior. That is the third lesson you have indirectly taught me: You have reminded me what's important in life. Is complaining about my day or being stressed about minor details even at all comparable to you struggling to get out of bed because you have forgotten how to walk? Love is what's important. My mom's strength and patience is true love. She visits you so much and I can hear her on the phone with Grandma crying because she is now taking care of the man who always took care of her. It kills me to see her cry, but what shocks me the most is that she hugs me when I'm crying. When I can't handle the sadness of the situation anymore, it's she who is strong enough for the both of us. She is the living definition of love.
When Grandma has had to make immense decisions for your health, including moving you to an Alzheimer's unit because it wasn't safe for you to be home alone and giving up seeing you every hour, I somehow find a prayer book on her table or a prayer card in her purse. This has taught me a fourth lesson: faith. While watching you barely have enough energy to stay awake and seeing you speechless because your brain can't possibly process what you are trying to say, I must remind myself of faith. I must remind myself that for everything in life there is a plan. Whether you disagree with the plan completely or not, you have to realize that someday you will understand, but it may not be today.
I have learned a fifth lesson: the true definition of support. Some of your old friends who I haven't ever met still come to visit you and people who you would expect to be there for you aren't, but it has shown me something valuable. It showed me that the people who are with you at your lowest moments are the ones you want around anyway. There have been more times than I can keep track of over the years where I have broken down and cried or where I have shut down because the pain of watching you suffer becomes suffocating. The same people are always there to pick me back up. The same community is there to fall back on. The same friends are the ones who let me cry, but remind me that you don't want me to cry. You want me to remember you the way you were.
The way you were isn't the way you are now, but that doesn't mean that I don't love you even more. I'll never know what's going on in your mind, but I pray every night that you are happy inside. I hope that when you are sleeping you get relief. I hope you have magnificent dreams of spending time with us, of owning Taylor Insulation, and of date nights with Grandma when she was your high school sweetheart. This is why no matter how many times you repeat yourself, I don't mind; it's spending time with you that matters. There are countless times that I don't understand what you are saying, but as long as it makes sense to you I'm happy.
You taught me how to find who I am. It's not about me; it's about you. It's about helping you and helping all those around you that are struggling with a disease that literally ruins your brain. It's about believing in the impossible because someday there will be a cure. Someday, high schoolers won't have to go each day wondering how badly Alzheimer's is affecting their loved ones. Someday, parents won't have to remind their own parents of who they are. Someday, spouses won't be separated from their loved ones because they aren't capable of taking care of them. Someday, there will be a world without Alzheimer's. The only way to get to that day is with hope. Hope is the most important lesson you have shown me. It is the very essence that connects you to me and all human beings to each other.
I want to thank you for being the best grandpa I could've been blessed with. Thank you for hugging me every time I visit, not even knowing that this could be the last hug we ever exchange. Thank you for loving me. I promise you I will never give up hope and I will never lose the memories we have shared. Despite your circumstances, you have still managed to live an incredible life and teach me so much, and, for this reason, I know Alzheimer's will never win because you already have.
Hannah is the second runner-up in this year's Alzheimer's Foundation of America Teens for Alzheimer's Awareness college scholarship competition.
Essay reprinted with permission of the Alzheimer's Foundation of America (AFA). For more information about AFA and the Young Leaders of the AFA, visit www.alzfdn.org or www.youngleadersofafa.org.