When I first moved to Fargo, the consistency of a Sunday dinner at grandma’s house was what helped me get through my weeks.
Around four o’clock every Sunday, I’d hop in my car and head down University towards Southwood Drive. I remembered the house from my visits as a child which, I’m sad to admit, came too few and far between.
When I had ultimately made the decision to go to Concordia College, it was in part predicated on the hopes that I would be able to get to know my grandma better before she passed away. Being stripped of the opportunity to spend quality time with any of my other three grandparents while they were living, I was committed to my Sunday nights at grandma’s – I wanted to build that relationship while she still knew who I was.
At the time I first started visiting, grandma was still a pretty good cook. She’d make bratwursts and potatoes, lasagna, tacos, and a few other of her quick-and-easy favorites. We’d chat about how school was going, what my new friends were like, if I had kept in touch with my parents that past week, and things of the like. She would ask me when I was going to introduce her to a girl; I would smile at my plate, shake my head, and say “someday, Grandma.”
Following our ice cream dessert, we would turn on 60 Minutes.
“Oh, it’s such an awful country we live in now, isn’t it?” she’d say. I wondered what it was like for her when she was my age.
Around six thirty I would look at my watch, sigh, and say “well, it’s probably time for me to head out.”
“Yeah, sorry, grandma. I’ve gotta get my laundry done – next week, though?”
She’d send me off with leftovers in a tupperware container, saying that I might get hungry and need a study break.
As the years went by, I had a front row seat for the regression of my grandma’s mental state. I found myself repeating the same stories often, each time with my grandma acting as surprised as the time before. She would do odd things like set the silverware on Kleenex instead of napkins, and write me birthday cards six months before my birthday. She started calling me “Evan” or “John” instead of “Jack,” and grew increasingly frustrated with herself when she couldn’t keep up conversationally. It was difficult to watch such a charismatic and sociable woman lose her confidence.
Though I still visited on Sundays, the meals she cooked turned to carryout pizza, week after week, with her continually telling me “I found this new place called… Papa Murphy’s. Have you had it?” Yeah, the last six weeks, grandma, I wanted to say. My post-dinner calls to my mom, where we would discuss the funny things grandma said and did, changed in tone. We were all concerned at how rapidly the decline was happening.
One Sunday in October of my junior year, right before grandma moved to the retirement community, I tried to remind her of a story.
“Yes?” she replied, brushing the crumbs off the sides of her mouth and blinking at me.
“Remember that time you were showing me your childhood house, and the camera crews started following you?”
“Well, of course,” she said, “I was the star of the show!”
We both laughed, as I started to clear our plates off the table. The moment I was referencing was back in 2011 during Fargo’s Historic Homes tour, when my grandmother’s old house was one of the main attractions. I took my grandma that day and we walked through the house, as she pointed out some of her favorite rooms as a child. The KVRR camera crews picked up on the fact that grandma used to live in this house, and started following, essentially letting the entire Fargo community in on my private tour. She lit up the room.
My mom used to tell me stories about how when she was younger, my grandma would be partying until the break of dawn with her friends. “I’d wake up in the middle of the night to them taking shots and grandma playing the piano in the living room,” my mom would tell me. “She was more wild than her high school kids were.”
It was that same sense of life that my grandma exuded that had me write a story about her in sixth grade, titled “Seventy-Five Going on Thirty.” I won an award for that story, which was a non-fiction piece about how hip my grandma was.
As the years went by, the Sunday nights at grandma’s became less frequent. My grandma would forget to call me, and I was beginning to develop a social life of my own up in Fargo. Grandma moved into a retirement community and started to have her Sunday meals at the cafeteria instead. When I did visit, she became more confused by who I was. At times I was her son, other times I was her brother. Though there are still some amazing moments where her mind seems perfectly in tact, the Alzheimer’s has certainly made its home in my grandma’s brain. It’s tough to see.
This weekend, I came over to her house to spend some time with her on Saturday morning.
“She’s just waking up,” said one of The Doves, a group of women my mom and her siblings hired to keep an eye on my grandma.
“Okay, thanks,” I responded, walking towards her bedroom.
My grandma strolled out into the common area, when she heard my voice, greeting me with a big hug.
“I’m so happy you’re here,” she said, clinging tighter to my chest. “I don’t like this life here anymore.”
Over six years ago, I moved to Fargo and had the intention of getting to know my grandma better. I’ve seen her at her highs, and tried to help her through some of her lows. Alzheimer’s Disease can take its toll on a person, but as I recount my Sunday nights at grandma’s, I realize one thing: although the disease has made my grandma forget who she is, it will never take away my memory of who she was.