My grandmother passed away in February after several years of gradually sliding into the Alzheimer’s fog. As with most deaths after a long battle with Alzheimer’s, my family met hers with sadness, tempered by a good amount of relief that her suffering was over.
|One of my grandmother's paintings.|
I regret to admit that my grandmother and I weren’t particularly close. At her memorial service, my older cousins told funny stories about their adventures with grandma as kids. I didn’t have the same memories. Throughout my childhood, when I thought of my grandmother, I thought of her fear. By the time I was old enough to form memories, she was afraid of everything. We had a dog named Sandy when I was growing up. If, god forbid, Sandy would make her way into the house when my grandparents were visiting, my grandmother would stand on the couch and scream. (I’ll assure you that as kids, my brothers and I never did this on purpose to see the show.) My grandmother would never eat in a restaurant or travel on an airplane, as both were deemed unsafe.
As much as she feared our killer attack Labrador, planes, and tainted restaurant food, her anxiety manifested itself most prominently through her diet. Throughout her fifties and sixties, she gradually gave up most foods. She was ripe for the picking for every exaggerated health-related headline designed to sell fear and newspapers. She would read an article about the dangers of a food and unceremoniously discard it from her diet, becoming a vegetarian long before being vegetarian was en vogue. She did this food by food until there was almost nothing left. At one point, she only ate bean soup, some fruits and vegetables, and yogurt.
During the last 10 years, my grandmother’s life changed dramatically. My grandfather passed away in 2001. A couple years after my grandfather died, a man named George left a message on my parent’s voicemail. My family has a unique last name, and George found my parents in the phone book while searching for my grandmother. George and my grandmother knew each other as young teenagers and always had a thing for each other. Then life happened; both married other people and they lost touch.
My parents forgot about the voicemail from George. My mom inadvertently deleted the message. A few weeks later, my dad mentioned this voicemail to my grandmother in passing. And that began my grandmother’s frantic search for her childhood crush.
A few days later, my mom realized that George’s number would be on her old caller ID. She called my grandmother with the number. Later that day, my grandmother called my mother back. She was excited. She had talked to George for an hour and they had plans to see each other.
Thus began their septuagenarian romance. George and my grandmother moved in together fairly quickly. At the urging of his priest, George insisted that they stop “living in sin” and get married. They went to the courthouse and eloped.
During this time, we saw remarkable changes in my grandmother. The woman who was once afraid of everything moved in with George and his dog, raved about her new favorite restaurants, and took the 12-hour flight from the East Coast to Hawaii. All of these changes were surprising, but we knew something was wrong when my long-time vegetarian grandmother asked for extra gravy on her meat.
When I think of the early signs of Alzheimer’s, I think of Junior Soprano and numerous other characters in movies and on TV, out wandering around the streets, unable to find their way home. But maybe there’s something before the first bouts of major forgetfulness. Maybe before Alzheimer’s takes everything away, it gives some relief from the negative stuff we’ve been carrying around with us.
Earlier this year, The New York Times featured an article entitled “Finding Joy in Alzheimer’s” written by a man whose grandmother forgave old grudges and patched up relationships during the early stages of Alzheimer’s. Maybe Alzheimer’s (and reconnecting with the love of her life) melted away decades of my grandmother’s anxiety. Just maybe, for a short time, Alzheimer’s helped my grandmother enjoy life, and food, more.
I find food to be a huge source of enjoyment and lately I’ve felt like I’ve been falling down a rabbit hole. Last month, Experience Life magazine published an article comparing two extreme diets: Paleo (eat things only available to cave people and avoid starch, sugar, and processed foods) and vegan (no animal products). After reading the article, I felt that the Paleo folks made valid points about why sugar and starch were toxic and the animal-loving side of me sided with the vegans.
|Think May is bad? This is December's menu.|
The article stuck with me. Every time I ate an animal product, I felt guilty. Every time I ate a grain, I felt guilty. Every time I ate just about anything other than locally-grown, organic, raw fruits and vegetables, I felt guilty. So, in May, in Maryland, I had the option of eating locally grown asparagus, spinach, and strawberries. Fabulous.
And that was when I realized how much I really had in common with my grandmother. For as much as we both loved oil painting, exercise, nutrition, and the Democratic Party, I always saw one huge difference between my grandmother and me that I couldn’t get past. My grandmother let her terror of sickness, injury, and death steal a lot of joy from her life; I always thought of myself as more balanced and fun loving. But could it be that I’ve taken my first steps down this dark, scary path? In 20 years, will I rid my diet of everything but the bare necessities? This is unequivocally not what I want.
I’ve made the decision to climb out of my self-made rabbit hole. No matter what I read or hear, I’m going to opt out of “extreme eating.” I will eat a spoonful of Nutella or a sandwich without guilt or anxiety because it makes me feel good.
Spending decades eliminating foods from her diet did nothing for my grandmother’s mental health, and it won’t do anything for mine. My grandmother didn’t find joy in food until she forgot to be afraid of it.
If I had to sum up what I learned about food from Alzheimer's disease, it would be this: Life’s short. Savor it.