My granddad had Alzheimer's disease. The year I turned 12 he rapidly grew weak and disoriented, and before my 14th birthday I watched my grandmother lay flowers on his grave.
He was pretty quiet even before he got sick, never really feeling the need to talk unless he had something in particular to say. He was so unassuming that I was repeatedly startled to discover the spark in his ice-blue eyes.
Growing up, I spent many meals at my grandparents' table, hot and bothered in my scratchy Sunday best, exasperated by the impossible challenge of keeping my elbows off the table. But before things got too unbearable, my grandfather would wink at me and sneak me an icing-laden pastry, ignoring my uneaten vegetables. Laughter would twitch about his mouth, and I would giggle breathlessly with the thrill of our secret.
The earliest memory I have is a game of peek-a-boo at my grandparents' house. I am on my hands and knees, creeping toward a doorway, and my granddad is waiting around the corner, ready to pounce and tickle and dance with me, cheek to bristly cheek. I remember endless games of blocks and trucks, and—as I grew older—billiards and darts in my grandparents' drafty basement.
There were sleepy afternoons curled up together in his fuzzy brown easy chair, reading the Sunday comics. When I got too big for his lap, we graduated to the back porch swing. I don't recall what we talked about. I mostly remember the snap of laundry waving on the clothesline, and the hummingbirds humming at the feeder attached to the kitchen window.
Losing his twinkle
I'm not sure how long my grandfather was ill before I began to notice changes in him. At first he just spoke even less than normal and sometimes fumbled over my name. But the Alzheimer's progressed quickly, and his clear blue eyes grew cloudy until they lost their twinkle.
My grandparents lived in Victoria, on Vancouver Island, and my little brothers and I used to spend the weeks between our monthly visits filled with anxious anticipation. We loved the two-hour ferry ride from the Mainland to Victoria, loved the boat's greasy cafeteria food and salty decks.
We followed the same ritual every visit. The ship docked at Schwartz Bay, and our parents made us promise to walk, not run, as we got off the boat. But the excitement would get the best of us until we were running to our destination. Our nana and granddad were always there, waiting with chocolate bars and hugs and exclamations of how big we were getting.
Around the time I became too old and too cool to run with my brothers, we began to find my grandmother waiting alone for us at the dock.
"Granddad's in the car," she'd say. "He's just a little too tired to make the walk." I would rush to the car, trying to stay cool. But he'd be sleeping, or staring out the window, and he never even said "hello."
I started to wish we didn't have to go to Victoria.
This is my song
The last time I saw my granddad, we were driving from my grandparents' house back to the ferry. He was distant and sick, his breathing labored, and the rest of us rode together in a weary silence.