Still Alive

Lisa Genova’s Still Alice ripped me apart. Pro tip: Don’t binge-read a book about a disease that runs rampant in your family. Especially one as destructive as Alzheimer’s disease.

My aunt, the other notorious reader in my family, told me about it a few years ago. She said she spent days sobbing, reading through tears. Her mother, my grandmother, had recently been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s back then. I’d heard of the book, of course, but could never bring myself to read it. I guess it was some sort of bizarre avoidance or coping mechanism — if I don’t know the gravity of the disease, written believably from the perspective of an Alzheimer’s patient, I can go on living my own happy, memory-filled life.

But things have been getting progressively worse for Grandma. She was recently put into an assisted-living center for people with memory loss. From what I hear, she’s having an OK time. She’s served good food, good conversation, good comfort when she needs it. But she doesn’t want to be there. She feels neglected, or at least that’s the vibe I’ve gotten from what’s been said through the family grapevine.

My dad, mom, brother, and I have been sort of estranged from them since before Grandma was diagnosed. Everything we hear is through the phone conversations Dad has every birthday or holiday, the Facebook postings from my aunts, the vague emails from Grandpa about the warm weather in Florida.

The last time I saw her, she was like a puppy. She’d ask questions, hear the answers, then ask the same questions again. I’d give the same answers. I did my best to be upbeat. She was cheerful, so why shouldn’t I be, too?

Her sister has it, too. I saw her about eight years ago. She was worried about the color of the Jell-O served with Christmas dinner. It was green, rather than the usual red. A few Christmases before that, she told her daughter how beautiful her wedding photos were, and how she wished she’d been able to see her, this beautiful stranger, get married. I never knew the pain this disease caused until that very moment, as my cousin’s eyes welled with tears and my great-aunt happily introduced me to her husband for the second time that day.

I asked my dad today if he thinks Grandma knows who we are anymore. He shrugged. I asked if she knows who he is, and he said he thinks so.

* * *

Sometimes I look through photos of my grandma, because the similarities between us are uncanny. Her face is practically my face (minus the nose). Her hips, her legs, her feet are mine. At a family member’s wake a few years back, my brother saw a picture of my grandma when she was my age, and thought it was me.

I’m happy to have gotten her looks. I always joke about getting lucky with the Holstrom Lady looks. But I fear for my brain. Grandma was always reading, doing crossword puzzles, gardening, exercising, being a social butterfly. Her sister was a teacher. Both had active, intelligent minds. And now they’re deteriorating or gone to nothing.

I can’t even get into the brains of my dad, my aunts, my uncle, my cousins. Everyone with any relation at all. It hurts too much.

All I want to do is find a cure. I want to get a time machine and bring them both back to before they started forgetting where they left their keys, and then provide them with the cure from the future. I want them to have their relaxing retirement days back.

* * *

Every time I told people what I was reading, I’d accidentally type “Still Alive,” and I’m thinking the name choice wasn’t an accident. On many occasions in the novel, Alice is sitting on the sidelines, watching her husband and children argue about how best to care for her, as if she isn’t there. As if she isn’t still alive. Yet they focus so much on keeping her alive, keeping her memory alive. They make mini-documentaries with interviews from people telling stories about her. They buy her the movies adapted from the books she can no longer read. They write her letters of how important she is to them, because they know she won’t remember it if it’s simply spoken.

Because they are still alive. All of them. Their memories are just leaving a little bit earlier.

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