Summer vacation was at the fingertips of my 17 year-old self as my mom and grandmother picked me up after my last final. Sitting in the backseat, I saw my mom was irritated, visibly bothered. My sister was a month shy of 19, 8 months pregnant, and not married. It was truly a blessing, although not everyone saw it that way. My mom was bothered by the way people we knew ignorantly talked about it. Gossip was the fire that burned through the forest, and my mom was getting too close to the flames.
I remember my grandmother was sitting in the passenger seat so calmly. She said, "If people want to talk, let them talk; we're going to have a beautiful baby!" She said it so joyously and proudly, as she rightfully should. She had our backs; she didn't care about everyone else.
And my grandmother was right. A few weeks later my sister had a beautiful baby boy. My nephew, now 7, is so lucky. He's lucky to have memories with his great grandmother, my grandmother. Now he visits her with me at the nursing home. It's difficult at times because how do you explain Stage 7 Alzheimer's to a first grader? You don't fully explain it, because that's not important.
Because a disease doesn't define her. We won't let it.
Alzheimer's will never define her. It's not my grandmother's story. Alzheimer's is not her triumphs, not her love, her accomplishments, her passion or her being. It never will be.
In my last article, I wrote about all that Alzheimer's has taken away from my grandmother mentally, physically and financially. But this article isn't about Alzheimer's; it doesn't deserve the attention this time.
This is about what Alzheimer's didn't take away; what it won't take away. This is about what my grandmother gave to me.
Coming to America from Greece as an outsider, to pick her life up and leave everything she knew for a better one is courageously daring. As a Greek immigrant, she was never ashamed. She didn't try to conform and Americanize herself to fit in. She brought her roots and planted them firmly. She's proud of them and it's what she knows best, passing them down to her family. We are her American Dream; she achieved it.
When my grandmother first went into the nursing home with Stage 3 Alzheimer's, when my family could no longer take care of her, we always used to sing. We only sang one song: the Greek National Anthem. Her voice, it trembled as she sang; the song stood for something much greater than the words themselves. Alzheimer's won't take away her voice.
My grandmother is and always will be the matriarch of her big fat Greek family. She made sure everyone was always full (and always with her homemade baklava), to the point of not being able to move off his or her seat. Spending the entire day cooking, she would serve seconds before she even sat down for herself. She didn't do it to be courteous; she truly puts others before herself. It brought such a joy to her; her happiness is helping others.
A few weeks ago, I visited my grandmother at her nursing home. As the aide was feeding her a puréed dinner, my grandmother kept saying "θέλεις, θέλεις?" In Greek, it means 'Do you want?' When it looks like she has nothing to give, she still always continues to put others first. Alzheimer's won't take away her being.
My smile is my grandmother's. She's always smiling. She gave that to me. It's a reminder to smile not just in the good moments but more importantly the bad ones. That an attitude can change the game. But mostly, her smile tells me she's okay; that we're going to be okay.
When I visit my grandmother in her nursing home, the first minute is always my favorite. I walk in the room and she's looking in the distance not paying attention to anything. She looks at me and we lock eyes. Then it happens. She lights up, smiling so big cheek to cheek. She's glowing, her smile, it's beautiful. Alzheimer's won't take away her smile.
My grandmother, my γιαγιά, is my legend.
Legends are courageous when they don't try to be. They're memorable when they may forget. They're tough, born fighters. They fight for others and stand up for what they believe in. Legends are brave in the everyday. They leave themselves with the world that carries on. Legends aren't just remembered; they live through us as they've touched so deeply. We all have them. We are our legends.
My γιαγιά gives me hope. Alzheimer's will never take that away. She gives me so much hope.
To learn about how you can help fight this disease please visit www.alz.org.