06/14/2012 11:10 am ET Updated Aug 14, 2012

Recollection Roulette

This essay was originally written as a submission for the 2012 Alzheimer's Foundation of America College Scholarship Contest. It received the second runner-up award.

I could see it in my grandmother's eyes before she even said a word. All I had to do was watch her focus in on me as I leaned over her wheelchair to give her a hug, and I knew she knew me. It was a minor victory in a battle she's rapidly losing, but it was knowledge I treasured nonetheless. I was determined to hold up my end of the bargain, saving each word in a corner of my mind, for if she could remember to say my name, I could remember she had. Sitting in a chair across from her, I drank in her struggle, wrinkles fighting laugh lines, powder blush against pale skin, bright blue combating cataracts.

Suddenly, my grandmother pointed at a picture of a six-year-old me resting on the nearby coffee table and remarked in her honeyed southern drawl, "Sweetie, do you see that?"
Studying my younger self, I grinned and nodded.

"That's my granddaughter," Nana chatted away breezily. "She lives in Connecticut. She must be... Well, I've plumb forgotten how old she'd be now!"

My smile froze, slipped off and shattered on the floor. I swallowed hard and felt my hands begin to shake, a nervous tic of my grandmother's that was passed down to my father and now to me.

I never knew either of my grandfathers; both died well before I was born. Growing up, I idolized my Nana Ruth, a shining example of the steadfast, capable, self-sufficient woman I wish to become. Her first house, the one my father grew up in, lay on the edge of a golf course in the peaceful suburbs of Wilmington, Delaware. As a child, my father, mother, brother and I would make the six-hour drive from Connecticut to visit her at least four or five times a year. She would be standing in the driveway to meet us, always wearing coke-bottle glasses and an ankle length dress with a hideous floral print straight out of the 60s. Having lived in the South most of her life, Nana Ruth's thick accent has never tempered despite raising her family in the North, where she's the only one who says "y'all" and drinks iced tea so sweet a single sip makes your teeth hurt.

There was no exact moment I discovered my grandmother had Alzheimer's disease. It seemed an impossible occurrence that this amazingly adept woman could ever be unable to fend for herself. Gradually, not remembering where she placed her glasses became not remembering where her house was, which became not always remembering my name. As she reached 80, she moved from her home in the suburbs to an assisted living facility where nurses came to bring her to dinner and to provide medication when needed. My birthday gifts from Nana Ruth used to be highly anticipated; she always knew exactly what to get and her cards would make me giggle. Now, my gift from her is really from my father, who buys a present in her name since she doesn't recall when my birthday is. The lack of a card in her delicate penmanship just affirmed the reality that had been slowly dawning in my mind, that my grandmother wasn't the same anymore. The concept seemed absurd, but as the years went on it became more and more like a joke that only I was laughing at.

The image of my grandmother in her driveway is how I like to remember her -- the Nana Ruth I hold onto in my memories. I try to pretend that there isn't a distinction between the strong woman I once knew and the shadow that sits in her wheelchair staring into space, but it's futile. When I wheel her into the bathroom to redo her makeup and she pulls out a blue ballpoint pen to draw on her eyebrows, I know it isn't her. When she paints on a coral red smile that looks clownish against her pale skin, I know it isn't her. Then she looks up at me, the finished product, and I know that if this were a stranger I saw with blue eyebrows, scarlet lips and too bright blush, I would probably laugh a little. But it isn't a stranger, it's my grandmother, and my heart just hurts every time I have to feign that she looks the same as always.

German blood runs deep in my roots, something I've come to appreciate, since strength -- physical and emotional -- is the principle characteristic I've acquired growing up in a family of that ancestry. It's what defines us, what helps us through the tough times and enables us to weather changes in the tide. German fortitude is how my grandmother endured the loss of her husband and the relocation of three of her four children halfway across the country to Texas. German grit is how my family copes with the demise of my grandmother's memory as she slowly slips away from us.

I find my own courage through writing, which has become my saving grace in the face of this debilitating disease. When I write about the time I spent in Delaware as a child, I find my grandmother within the pages. Preserving my memories on paper helps me to process what is occurring and to see Nana Ruth as the woman she truly is. Ironically, one of the greatest sorrows of my life led me to discover one of the greatest joys of my life. Recording recollections of my grandmother before and during her Alzheimer's battle made me realize how much I enjoyed writing about social issues. I have hopes of someday soon writing a novel about the Alzheimer's struggle, so that I might help others who are enduring the same trials cope with the realities of losing a loved one this way. When I write, I am liberated, and, strangely enough, documenting my sadness alleviates some of the pain.

Even though writing about this changed version of Nana Ruth can be extremely hard, I owe it to her -- for my grandmother is so much more than this moment, or this year, or this disease. There will be a time in the near future when she won't be here physically, even if she is already no longer here mentally. I try to remember this every time we visit her and I feel frustrated that she can't always recall my name. The German strength, her strength, will pull me through and linger long after she has gone. That is her legacy. That is the image I have aspired after since I was a child, and it does not change, no matter how weak her mind has become.

So now, whenever I sit on the couch next to Nana Ruth, I stare into those blue eyes I know so well and relearn the map of her face all over again. In those moments when my grandmother knows my name, she is the one carving a permanent smile on my face so wide I feel as though I could split in half with the joy. When she can't, I swallow the bitter pill of disappointment and know that, for the love of her, I am whoever she wants me to be.

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.