"How about a hard candy for each of you?" My granddad's brown eyes are staring at the wall as he mutters this phrase while guiltily shoving every butterscotch candy into his already stuffed shirt pocket. Every now and then he takes a break to look around and make sure nobody is watching. If he catches me watching his petty act he'll slyly set down the candy dish and put a mask of innocence on. That is, until he forgets why he stopped grabbing candies five minutes later and continues again on his never-ending task. I lean back into my grandparents' large, overworn couch and remember the times he used to say this phrase and mean it.
My hands were covered in sticky apple juice and a huge grin was spread across my face. Granddad was standing next to me holding a small, round crab apple that I had just picked off the ground next to their apple tree. My sisters were next to us at the top of the long driveway cheering my granddad on. With extreme expertise, he leaned forward and pelted the apple down the hill towards the end of the driveway. My sisters and I squealed and chased after the rolling apple, waiting to see where it would come to stop on the side of the smooth pavement. It was a sort of contest to see who could roll their apple the farthest. As the sun was setting my granddad gathered all of us around and exclaimed, "How about we head inside and each of you girls can get a hard candy?"
"Would you like a hard candy?" I flash back into reality to see my granddad coming towards my grandmom with a half-eaten unwrapped caramel candy in his hand. "No thank you," my grandmom turns and answers. She turns and looks at me, and we share a smile. For the past few years as Alzheimer's disease has grown into a part of her daily life my reverence of her never-failing strength has grown. Just by witnessing her calm and dignified attitude towards this unfortunate event has taught me so much. Instead of making every day seem like a struggle, she finds the strength to care for my granddad the same as she has since the day they met. Not only am I in awe at the power of her love, I am also proud to know that her Southern strength runs in my blood. She is not one to give up without a fight or dismiss a problem to someone else, and through this experience I have learned that this trait is a gift I was given. I have an immense amount of respect towards how my grandmom has dealt with this situation, and I know that she will continue to make the rest of my family and me proud during these hard times.
The sun was shining through the grove of trees. Granddad and I were walking along one of the many paths through the forest in their backyard. "This one's a poplar. See the leaves? It's nice and straight. Good for wood." I tried to soak up every bit of knowledge I could about the woods in their backyard. As we reached their house after a long looping trail, I ran inside, excited to share my new information about different trees with my family. My grandfather followed after me and grabbed up the candy dish. "Some hard candies for my three favorite granddaughters?" he asked us with a glow in his eyes.
"A hard candy for John?" my granddad asks himself. He's not even standing at the candy dish anymore; he's busy inspecting the wood grains of the front door. "I think you have some candies in your pocket Granddad," I tell him with a grin. He reaches back into his overstuffed pocket and his eyes light up as he pulls out a handful of his favorite butterscotch candies. He thanks me with a smile sweeter than all of the butterscotch candies in the world. While experiencing my granddad being overcome with Alzheimer's disease, I have learned a lot about myself. It has taken a lot of patience and perseverance to keep up with this change, but I have surprised myself by taking it in stride and finding the strength to get through it. I have learned that staying calm and keeping a positive outlook on any situation is the best way to go. Getting angry about something you can't change won't do anything except make you more frustrated. In coping with my granddad's illness, I have learned to stay patient and strong.
It was winter and every tree in my grandparents' backyard had a blanket of frosty snow clinging to each branch. My granddad was walking down the sloped hill behind their house; my sisters and I were following, stepping in each of the footprints that he made in the snow and giggling. We made it to the bottom of the hill and turned to face the ice-covered pond awaiting us. With slightly numb fingers we awaited our chance to go -- we knew the drill! We watched as granddad walked out into the center of the pond, jumped up and down a few times, and then shouted, "All clear! The ice is safe." My sisters and I slid and wobbled our way around the pond, having the time of our lives, until suddenly my bundled-up-self took a fall. At the young age of six, falling on the ice was one of the biggest disasters ever. Tears ran down my face, and through my blurred eyesight I could see my granddad coming over. After helping me up, he declared, "How about we go inside. Do you know what might make you feel better? One of those hard candies."
The setting sun appears through the window. I look over and see my sleeping granddad with a pile of hard candy wrappers sitting next to him on his couch. In the past couple of years, I have picked up on so much information about my granddad's disease. My granddad is still the same person; he only needs a little more guidance to remember everyday things. In my mind I compare it to people walking through a forest as the sky gets dark: They are still in the same situation and have the same ethics, they just need a flashlight to help find their path. In my mind that is what my family members and I are doing; we're flashlights guiding my granddad through everyday tasks. I have made it a point to help guide my granddad in any way that I can. Whether secretly baking vegetables into his cookies so that he gets enough vitamins in his diet, helping him find a place to settle down in new environments, or just letting him know everything is okay, I am there for him always. The fact that a phrase such as, "Would you like a hard candy?" would be one to get stuck in my granddad's vocabulary as the rest of it disappears means a lot to me. This means that my granddad is such a genuinely giving person because he must have said that candy-offering phrase enough for it to get ingrained in his mind. I am honored to have been raised in the presence of such a kind, giving granddad, and he still means as much to me as he did when I was a child.
Coping with Alzheimer's disease has impacted my life in that I have become a "flashlight" guiding my granddad in his life. Through coping with his disease, I have learned many things. I have learned that my grandmom has a heart of strength. I have learned that I, too, can handle situations with the strength and grace that she does, and I have learned that my granddad is and will always be the kind, giving gentleman who is always asking, "Would you like to have a hard candy?"
Laura is the grand prize winner of this year's Alzheimer's Foundation of America Teens for Alzheimer's Awareness college scholarship competition.