Just as despair can come to one another only from other human beings, hope, too, can be given to one only by other human beings. – Elie Wiesel
I had heard nearly a hundred stories from and about my grandfather by the time I was nine years old. They ranged from the most simple of tasks, like putting up the Christmas tree, to the most unusual, like his becoming a professional circus clown for a year. What I remember most are the funny stories, the ones that made us hold our stomachs, aching from laughter. There are so many tales, each of them having been told and retold, some requested so much and so often that it was an unspoken rule that they would be enthusiastically reenacted at every family gathering. One such story is the famous “cat caught in the drapes” incident, in which my grandfather, furious that the cat had climbed up the curtains again, whipped off the bath towel which had been around his waist and began swatting at the cat. Unfortunately for him, my grandma had invited people over, and they all walked in to the unexpected scene of my grandfather, in the buff, whacking at the cat that had perched itself high out of reach. Regardless of how many times it has been repeated, that story never gets old.
There were other stories too; recollections of his time spent fighting in WWII, his experiences working in a POW camp that held German soldiers, and of his many years spent working with the Boy Scouts.When I was younger, those memories mattered little to me. I was a child who cared more for humorous stories than the serious stories of war or the dull tales of life at the Boy Scout Camp. I never bothered to try to remember them for any length of time. Why should I have? The storyteller was there to recount anything I had forgotten, so holding on to countless stories seemed pointless. But now, though my grandpa still lives, the stories he holds are slowly dying away. He still pulls me aside some days to ask if I have heard about the time…, but “the time” is often the same time he told me about yesterday or last week. Now, I catalogue those stories in my mind as if they will never be told again, keeping secret the thought that lingers close to the surface in my mind: who will remember these stories when he no longer can?
Alzheimer’s is a cruel beast of a disease, attacking sporadically, following no logical pattern or discernable path. When a person is diagnosed, the people around him often slowly abandon hope, admitting defeat and accepting that, eventually, we will be forgotten by the one we love. Thoughts begin to creep into our heads. Why should we bother to hope for a miracle when we know that it will never come? What good can come from holding on to a thin strand of hope when it will eventually snap, and we will fall all the farther? Some part of me wants to agree with the truth in this, to face the “realities of life” and admit to myself that hoping is futile. So many experiences in the past months have made me want to hold up my hands and accept that life will only get worse.
No one but those who have experienced it can know the crushing of the soul that happens when they find out that their grandfather didn’t know who the kids sitting around the dining room table were, that he wondered why they were in his house. The bubble of hopefulness seems to diminish every time another moment like that occurs, pricked by doubt’s whispers that it will only get worse. The whispers seem to hold their own truth as more and more frequently, he becomes less and less aware of those around him. What hope could possibly exist in the shadow of such memories?
Yet, for some unknown reason, hope has grown and blossomed in my soul despite all the evidence that it is worthless, leading me to think that there is something innate in a human that refuses to allow him or her to give in completely until the end has finally come. Perhaps it is our desire to believe that anything is possible, that a person can come back from the darkest of places victorious. I do not pretend to understand it and willingly admit that I don’t even understand myself when it comes to the subject of my own hope. Each of us must have our own reasons for clinging to hope when all else is lost, for never giving up. I have only just begun to discover mine. If ever asked why I hold on to the hope that my grandfather will be the one to tell us the stories in a year or two, that he will still remember who I am, I would point to the one day and the one memory that gets me through it all. It was the night when, after a long day, my grandma was leaning backward slightly, elbows on the countertop from exhaustion, only to stand up straight as my grandfather shuffled into the kitchen. He had already begun getting ready for bed, and so her suddenly attentive posture signaled her thought that something had to be wrong. She asked him what was the matter, but the unexpected came in return. “Nothing’s wrong dear,” he replied, “I just wanted a goodnight kiss before bed.” To anyone else, it would seem a simple, inconsequential exchange, but to me, it is the memory that keeps my hope alive in an otherwise dark time.
Maggie McLinden is a junior from Louisville, Ohio, majoring in Integrated Language Arts/English Education.