My grandmother Rose Marie never thought Christopher Columbus could sail. She thought that television sounded like a ridiculous idea. She grew up during the Depression, always drank her coffee black and wore pantyhose when they were a scarce commodity. She is the younger of two sisters — the more rebellious, wild one who once packed up her books and announced that she was leaving her parochial school because she felt the nun was treating her unfairly.
My name is Colleen Marie Craig, and I’m her only granddaughter. Up until two years ago, I lived 857 miles away from her in Connecticut. My grandma has shown signs of Alzheimer’s disease for the past 10 years. She lives in a disoriented world, where the simplest words and names of family members escape her, and she has become aggressive and cruel toward loved ones. Sitting on my grandparents’ worn-out, beige couch in their living room, as I’ve done for as long as I can remember, I listen to her talk about how terrible her granddaughter is; about how she only ever thinks about herself. Maintaining a relationship with a person who suffers from Alzheimer’s, whether it be grandmother, mother or wife, is a heartbreaking task. It’s not a choice; it’s a lifelong commitment.
Rose Marie Elsie Beauchamp was born less than a mile from the place where she lives today in Bradley, Ill. She met her husband, Gerald “Jiggs” O’Connor, in high school, when he dated her sister Betty for a brief period before being drafted in World War II. At the age of 24, just before marriage, she was visiting a farm in Irwin, Ill., with my grandpa and decided that she would be the one to drive home. Jiggs started laughing, but she revved up the engine in their old, beige Studebaker Skyliner and was on her way down the dirt road. Shocked by her audacity, but also impressed by her daring nature, Jiggs followed behind on foot. Not making it more than a mile down the road, she stalled the car and was stranded among endless plots of empty farm land.
Jiggs and Rose have wanted to be near each other ever since. Being around the two of them reaffirms everything I’ve ever believed about falling in love — it happens, it’s real, it endures. My grandpa handles my grandma’s sickness with an unbelievable calmness. He’s 80 years old and has just learned how to cook an omelet, fold laundry, prepare a pork chop and shop for makeup. He continues to see his wife in a person who resembles so little of her former self. He doesn’t ask for help, he doesn’t question why an awful, unfair disease has attacked Rose; he simply accepts their destiny and keeps on living.
Rose Marie, as she is often called, has soft green eyes, an impressively smooth nose and playful elbow skin that provided me much joy as a young child. Her smile is full and her laugh contagious. She puts her entire body into every laugh, throwing her head back, opening her mouth wide and slapping her bad knees for emphasis. I have witnessed her, on numerous occasions, getting an entire Wendy’s eatery, my grandparents’ “nightclub,” erupting with laughter. She is never at a loss for words.
Rose has always worn makeup and insisted that her hair be done up nice. She loved to wear high heels and big hats on special occasions. She hosted family gatherings in her basement, a tradition passed on by her mother. The bridge club was frequent visitors for her pies. She has lived on a budget since the day she was born. Her first paying job came when she was 10 years old, when she cleaned houses for 25 cents. She has always believed in hard work, good health and happiness.
It pains me to think of how she would view herself today. Rose is unable to complete the most mundane of tasks or piece together a simple sentence. She very rarely bathes, remembers to brush her teeth or wears matching socks. Each time I visit her she is wearing the same tattered black pants that are too tight around the thighs and a red-and-black-striped turtleneck with stains across the chest. I helped her buy a new bra, I cut her fingernails, and I hold her hand whenever possible, but this isn’t enough. I want her to recognize me when I walk through the door, to comprehend how much I love her and to know that even without her Mary Kay makeup, she is still strikingly beautiful.
My father came across a hidden treasure in the office closet of my parents’ new house: two cassette tapes from 1987, an interview that my mom taped of my grandmother for a paper she had to write for her master’s in teaching. I sat on a stool at the counter, eating jellybeans, listening to the two of them converse for hours. There was actual, sensible, conversation taking place in our kitchen between two women whom I always wish would talk more candidly.
The last time my grandparents visited my family in Connecticut was half a decade ago for my high school graduation. I walked into the kitchen to find my grandma crying, though I knew it wasn’t because she was chopping onions for the salad. It was because my mom refused to accept her failing health. The silence between them could speak volumes, but the moment the disease became more stubborn than Rose, my mom let go. She has adapted the qualities necessary for survival in a world that makes no sense.
Rose has started a frustrating habit of packing up all of her belongings into plastic bags. We’re not quite sure why she does this, but there have been many nights where my grandpa calls, distraught, because she has no pajamas to wear to bed. It amazes me how she manages to pack seemingly random items into each tiny plastic bag. She’ll put rosary beads in her stockings, combs in her navy blue heels, mirrors and bottles of hotel shampoo inside a jewelry box, and her bible safely tucked in between two button-down shirts.
Most of the things in these bags can be qualified as “stuff,” except the bible, which was a gift and has been opened daily since 1947. I’ve gone through many of these bags, searching mainly for a precious ring that has been misplaced, and I’m convinced that there’s a method to the madness. Inside her navy blue leather purse was three items: a sewing kit, a tiny, broken cross of Jesus and a crayon. The crayon’s color was Tickle Me Pink, my favorite of the box set.
I’m often baffled about how to describe the word “love.” It can be simple, complex, joyous, shattering, and most frequently, all of the above. My grandmother’s body has outlived her mind, and although she may no longer recognize the husband or the daughter who selflessly pour endless amounts of energy into making her life comfortable, it has given me a sense of hope and understanding. Diseases may attack even the strongest of characters, but relationships built around unconditional love will, in the best way possible, endure.