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Emily Keaton

Humans of Dementia Winner

Tiny, misshapenly-peeled potatoes, mixed-up knickknacks in a drawer, and an out-of-character letter to a cousin letting them know ballroom dancing was trivial and not to write again. These were the signs, Mom tells me, that my sweet Mamaw was developing Alzheimer’s.

I am named after both of my grandmothers- my middle name inherited from my mom’s mother, Jo Anne. I am told that the Anne in me is Mamaw’s fierce spirit. Mom’s favorite story of that fierceness has the best line.

My uncle grew up playing with many animals throughout the neighborhood and, at one point, took a special liking to a turtle. Older neighborhood boys bullied him one day and took away the turtle, threatening it and sending him home crying and scared. Mamaw put her pants on and took little Mark by the hand and went right up to the house of the offensive villains. “We’ve come for our turtle,” she declared.

Dear to Mamaw’s heart, apart from justice and her students, was her husband of 60 years, Warren. Their romance blossomed after a friend made their perfect match, despite the hesitance of Mamaw’s mother in letting her date a “college boy.” Then she met the college boy and fell in love with his tender heart and movie star smile. A picture of them on an early date has been in our house for as long as I can remember- both sitting on a bench, slightly squinting in brilliant light, leaning into each other, with my Papaw’s arm around her.

As Mamaw’s dementia worsened, we knew it was time for her to receive advanced care in a 24/7 facility, despite how it grieved us to see a vacant home where her Thanksgivings were once shared or all my cousins stacked in a pyramid on each other’s backs on a warm summer night. Initially, Mamaw and Papaw were together in the same care home, though he eventually needed to be moved where he could receive specialized care for his colon and ongoing leukemia. Mom was then the chaperone for their dates, shaving Papaw’s face and ironing his new polo shirt and fixing Mamaw’s hair and picking out her blouse. They both were pushed in wheelchairs to each other, each time with his hands open and outstretched, ready to kiss his honey.

When he left, she began to ask, “You know- that fella- how is he doing?”, trying to place her finger on her dear husband’s face or name. Even after he died: “How is…that man?” Telling her he had passed away would be news to her all over again, and she would sob “Why didn’t you tell me?” Mom, ever-caring, knew to respond instead with “He’s just resting,” giving Mamaw peace to breathe with a relieved smile and move into a new topic.

When Mom and I last talked about Mamaw, she recalled the difficulty of first seeing her mother cradle a doll without any ability to distinguish it from a living infant or even a child of her own. It was a blow to reality to distinctly see Mamaw’s inability to recognize. But then- it brought such a light to her eyes. “How can you deny her or anyone in that position that kind of comfort?” she asked with heart in her face. A baby’s feel grounded her, often moving her from short phrases that didn’t make sense to coherent “Isn’t he pretty?” or “What a sweet baby!”

And, yet, it was amazing how she to the end retained her ability to say “Be careful” as we left, the deeply-ingrained motherly instinct never leaving her. So remained the ability to harmonize to a tune and remember dozens of hymns, her voice still hopping in as soon as one was started.

Mamaw made it to the first day of 2020, passing peacefully in hospice. We visited her for Christmas and have the holiday memory of having kissed her and told her we loved her over and over, never knowing then it would be our last. Her natural silver hair suited her so beautifully, and she wagged her finger at me like she always had in jest, threatening some imaginary mischief. Though pieces of her memory became blurred together, the fiery, bright eyes and sparkly humor remained, firm as the Anne in my name.

In this deep night, as all is completely quiet outside my apartment, I can hear her crystal harmony:

“And the things we share as we tarry there

None other has ever known”