My grandmother, Pauline Block, was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in her mid-70s. That night, 40 years ago, though not all of us understood the illness our family began the mourning process.
“This will be a slow and painful process for everyone,” my dad explained to me and my two younger brothers. “I’m putting her in a nursing home and we’ll visit a few times a week. Try not to act like anything’s different when you see her.”
“What’s going to happen?” I asked.
“She’s going to forget … At some point she may not remember your names.”
“Will she remember yours?”
I’ll never forget my dad’s deep breath and sibilant exhale as he stared at me with mixed emotion. “Eventually? Probably not,” he said.
My two brothers chimed in. "So ... she won't know our faces?" asked my middle brother.
"I'm not sure," Dad said. "We'll have to play it as it comes."
"How can she forget?" asked my younger brother.
I remember my father placing his hand on my younger brother's shoulder. "I don't know," Dad honestly answered. "I just don't know."
Later that night, my mom addressed her three sons. “This is very tough on your dad. It’s the first time I’ve ever seen him cry so don’t push him too hard, okay?”
It was time to be big brother and enforce that request when necessary.
Nah, who am I kidding? It was time for me to leave the rebellious teen in the closet — the one for whom comic books and not heeding real life issues were priorities — and be as supportive as possible to my family.
In short order, the few times a week visitations became once a weekend as we settled in to our new reality.
I was 16. My two brothers were 13 and 10.
What transpired we never could have anticipated.
Pauline Harding was born in Brooklyn, New York near the turn of the 20th century. Her birth date is in some dispute, though 1902 is commonly agreed upon. She was an avid dancer in her early days, and married twice.
Her first marriage, to Harry Eisenberg, was unhappy from the start. My father and his older sister were raised in a volatile household where fighting was a daily occurance. When they were children, my dad and aunt became the product of a contentious divorce.
My dad in particular had a tough time reconciling the split of his parents considering his classmates all seemed to come from happy homes. He developed a temper when teased, that he controlled as much as he could and followed him into adulthood when pressed.
My grandmother remarried decades later, but by then she was an older woman in her late-60s who had lost most of her vibrancy.
But prior to my grandmother’s first marriage, she was a carefree young woman who loved to dance.
Pauline Harding was a partier, and dancing sustained her peace.
She had not been at peace since she married. On the contrary, she gained nearly a hundred pounds over her unhappiness … and the dancing stopped.
Time went on following her diagnosis and my grandmother’s condition declined.
When she was still able to speak our heart-to-heart conversations assured me she had no fear … and all she wanted to do was dance. She asked me if Manny, her second husband, was okay at home by himself.
Manny had died nearly five years before.
My grandmother soon lost control of her bladder and then her bowels. She started losing control of her speech and did indeed forget our names.
Including my dad’s.
But to the good, we had noticed just how much dancing meant to her during the decline.
As she could now no longer walk, she would move her feet in her wheelchair in sync with the music in her mind and say, to anyone listening, “I love to dance.” And she would then, like clockwork, offer up a huge, beaming smile.
“I love to dance … I love to dance,” she repeated like a child.
This was a consistent, and surprising, behavior.
We met with the doctor.
“Pauline, she was a dancer, yes?” the doctor asked.
“Yes,” my dad said. “She sort of danced away her troubles, you know?”
“Makes sense. You will find as the condition advances, her earliest and in her case happiest memories will likely remain. Newer memories are lost first.”
“Her happiest memories?” I asked.
“Mind you, there is no scientific evidence for retaining happy memories,” the doctor replied. “But we’ve found some Alzheimer’s patients laugh until the end, even once they lose the ability to speak. We consider them the lucky few.”
And that was my grandmother. Not long after this conversation, her speaking and laughing was replaced by drooling and gurgling. And yet, she kept bobbing her head, and moving her feet as though she was still dancing.
And, she never stopped smiling. Long after she was considered immobile, the feet still held sway.
My grandmother died, and at her funeral my father remarked she danced to the end.
“Alzheimer’s didn’t beat her,” he said. “She was lost to the disease … but she didn’t lose to the disease. She was the happiest I think I had ever seen her. Go figure.”
Her battle, of which she never complained or showed frustration over the gradual loss of her faculties, was one-sided.
Grandma never stopped smiling.
And she never stopped dancing.
She kicked Alzheimer’s ass, refusing to allow the murderous scourge to steal her cherished peace.