ON WHITNEY AND DEMENTIA
I cannot say for sure when I stopped noticing my grandmother repeating herself. Her voice is still in my head, constantly asking me where she left her glasses or when I am going to put the window at the top of the stairs down. I haven’t noticed it since the spring of 2017, though. I took care of her during the previous summer, the last summer before she died, and I could describe all of her quirks to you, but I would have to ask my mother to remind me of the specifics, because I cannot remember them myself. I know it started around 2011 or so, the excessive repeating, about two years after she first started showing symptoms. Sometimes she would sit in the kitchen and cut up boxes into tiny pieces for hours, other times she would tell her cousin over the phone about the Marine sleeping on her couch. The Marine she would refer to was me, and I have never considered joining the military.
When I was younger, my grandmother would take me on walks in her woods. Her property went back at least a mile, and there were trails with trees marked by orange lines to tell us what way to go. There was a creek back there, small but ferociously meandering, that we would sit by and skip rocks in. Her neighbor put an aluminum bridge over the water so we could get to the other side, where the rocks were thinner and smoother. She’d hold my hand as we went towards the highway waiting on the other side of her land, and sometimes we’d get lost, and she’d make a comment about losing her mind, and this was years before she actually did.
There was an album called Light Upon the Lake that was released by the band Whitney in the summer of 2016, and I think it would be ideal to listen to “Follow,” the closing track, before you continue reading. If you’ve heard it a thousand times, like me, I would like you to listen to it once more. You can play it through your Amazon Echo, or your phone, or through a vinyl record if you’ve got it. I want you to listen to the way the keyboards hum and how the drums swing and consider how Julien Ehrlich’s vocals coil the song into something beautiful. Just for me, please, listen.
I don’t need to give you Whitney’s backstory because that doesn’t matter. The band’s impact on the Chicago music scene is whatever. I live in Ohio, so Whitney’s Chicago-ness has no impact on me. The closing song on Light Upon the Lake is very sweet and pretty, but it cuts deepest if you’ve experienced the story in the song. I don’t know if you’ve caught on yet, but the song is about a family member with Alzheimer’s, or at least that’s what I want the song to be about. In the song, Ehrlich sings about following an unspecified person running home once their troubled mind remembers something. The “home” in the lyrics could mean anything, but I want it to mean a good mind or peace after death or something lovely. I want the person in the song to be my grandmother. I want to follow her.
There’s a story about my grandmother I like to tell everyone. It was a few months before she died, and it was just the two of us in her living room watching an Indians game. Out of nowhere, she started asking me when her husband was coming home and if he was okay. I’d never met my grandfather, because he died five years before I was born, but all I could say was “he’s fine.” My grandmother sundowned a lot. Sundowning is when an Alzheimer’s or dementia patient becomes confused by late-day or early evening. Often, they lose a sense of time. Sometimes my grandmother thought it was 1954, sometimes 1937, other times 2016. She said she talked to her husband in her bedroom a few nights prior, and I believed her. I don’t believe in ghosts or paranormal stuff, but I do believe that the human mind convinces us that some things are real, no matter how much they certainly aren’t.
I didn’t hear Light Upon the Lake when it first came out. I actually didn’t discover it until April 2017. One day, at work, I was scrolling through Spotify and came upon it randomly. The rest of was history. When I first listened to it, I was obsessed with its subtleness and its brevity. The softness that bled into gargantuan harmonies of brass and percussion. The way the melodies reminded me of late nights at my grandmother’s house when we’d watch cable television and watch the neighbor’s mercury light flicker and cut open the night.
When I was little, I used to make her tell me stories about her childhood, and she could recite all of them perfectly. She was the world’s greatest storyteller. She had a dog named Rin-Tin-Tin, a farm, and, once, she was bucked off a horse. We’d be upstairs in her bedroom, one with yellow walls, in the summer, with the windows open, and sometimes I could hear the faintest sound of water trickling in the creek nearby. The months leading up to her death, I stayed in that bedroom while she spent her nights restless downstairs. Summer faded into fall and I went to college. Then, she fell and shattered her pelvis. Then, she stopped eating. They say eating is the last motor skill to go. The closing track, if you will.
Though “Follow” is the final song on Whitney’s first album, they never play it last at live shows. I would like to believe the band understands that the song is not an ending, but, rather, a beginning. There’s something beautiful in imagining someone’s death as the beginning of someone else’s long road home from grief. When I listen to “Follow,” I imagine my grandfather standing beside the creek behind my grandmother’s house. I think of him wearing a green button up and slacks, his hair slicked like it was in every picture, his face a rose, my grandmother’s face a rose, her running towards him, me following to catch a glimpse.
I don’t speak on behalf of everyone with family members who are suffering, or have suffered, from dementia or Alzheimer’s. Many find it easy caring for their loved ones, some struggle immensely. I always fell somewhere in-between. Certain days, I found a lot of entertainment in hearing my grandmother say random incorrect things. Others, I was angry, sleeping in on purpose so I wouldn’t have to make sure she wasn’t walking her dog. It gets so tiresome after so long, man. There are good moments, though. I promise.
I do remember the real end, though: me coming home from college to say goodbye, singing “If You’re Happy and You Know It” with her while her dry mouth gave her coughing fits. Instead of accepting the glass of water I wanted her to drink, she wanted to sing. It was the only goddamn thing she could remember, other than me. I don’t know if that’s actually true. But, in the last moment we shared together, I do think she remembered me. And I will always believe that, because the human mind convinces us things are real when they certainly aren’t.
A few months after she passed, I imagined her nowhere, just a body in the dirt, because, near the end, all she was was just a body. I know that sounds harsh, and I’m sorry, but I just couldn’t come to terms with what really happened. But then I found “Follow” by Whitney. It doesn’t erase the pain of loss. But the lyrics help me want a better afterlife, if there is one, for someone I loved with all of my heart. It’s one song on a soundtrack I’ve created to make whatever memories I have left of her not so goddamn sad, but, instead, lovely. I hope you find that song, too, whoever you are, and I hope it helps you go home.