My grandmomma was the sweetest woman I'd ever known. But as she advanced in the stages of Alzheimer's disease, she was robbed of the characteristics that brought so many people to love her.
From as far back as I can remember, Grandmomma was selfless- she cooked, cleaned and took care of my Papaw, who was just as much a saint as she was. She spoiled me rotten, taking early-morning walks with me, growing strawberries in the back yard so I could pick them and letting me get away with things my mother would have been in big trouble for. I never heard one hurtful word come out of her mouth. I recall my grandparents arguing once- the debate was over what to have for dinner. She attended many, if not all, school plays and recitals I took part in. My memories of Grandmomma are all good, warm and comforting.
Grandmomma and Papaw dated while they were in school and eloped the night of their senior banquet to get married- May 16, 1942. They kept that secret from their parents for two weeks. They had the kind of marriage I pray I can share with my husband- 66 years of bliss before Papaw died in 2009.
As I reached my late teen years, I started to notice a change in her- nothing drastic, but I could tell something was different. At that time, I believed it to simply be the changes that come to many as they grow older.
When I was 21, Grandmomma's personality took a crucial turn. She would become angry and speak her mind, saying things a lady from her generation would normally blush about. It was at that point we realized something was seriously wrong. Sure enough, tests confirmed she had developed Alzheimer's, and my mother made the decision to put her into an assisted living home here in Amarillo. Determined not to be parted from the love of his life, Papaw made the trip with her and continued to live by her side.
Not long after, Grandmomma was moved to the Alzheimer's unit at Meadowlands Terrace in Waco. There, she was in the same city as my parents and received quality care from the people at the facility. Let me just add this- thank goodness for the nurses and doctors at Meadowlands. Every Alzheimer's patient- and every elderly person- should receive the love and attention Grandmomma was given there. Though Papaw hated being away from home, he spoke all too frequently about the ladies who cared for both him and his wife and how much fun they were. I like to think he left this world happy, knowing he lead a fulfilling life and was leaving his wife in the hands of truly wonderful people.
Grandmomma's Alzheimer's had developed to the point that she was not aware of her husband's death. Perhaps it was for the better. Over the next two years, it seemed she got worse more quickly. She could not feed or bathe herself, and it soon got to the point where she did not know how to eat or swallow. And then, the day I thought would never come finally did. I went to Waco to visit her and she did not know who I was. That was the moment I think I finally accepted her condition, and began to dread what was up ahead.
Grandmomma died on June 1, 2011. She was extremely slender and frail, and looked nothing like the image of Grandmomma that will forever be implanted in my brain. As happy as I was knowing she was in a better place, I couldn't help but feel sadness and anger that a disease had taken everything from the sweetest person I've ever known. Looking across the bed at my mother, I knew she felt the same way.
At that moment, I realized something had to be done- a cure for this horrific disease had to be found, the suffering had to stop. Simply participating in the Alzheimer's walk wasn't enough anymore. I wanted to make a bigger difference.
Last month, I came across a new fundraiser on the Alzheimer's website- The Longest Day Relay. It was a national fundraiser where teams across the country took part in physical activity for the 16 hours of daylight on June 20. I immediately called my best friend Laura, who lost her grandfather to Alzheimer's the same year I lost Grandmomma. She loved the idea of putting a team together, and we started making plans and reaching out to people for support. Thanks to social networking provided by Facebook, we were able to get the word out.
Our team was small- seven members total. But Amarillo's Team Hope raised nearly $2,000 to go directly toward the fight against Alzheimer's, and more is still coming. Our team has until July 20 to bring in donations.
Laura and I set up camp at 5 a.m. at Medi Park. We were soon joined by our friend Amy, and the three of us spent the next nine hours walking, running and playing football until the other team members arrived from work. Some people stopped by our table to see what was going on. Some donated, some did not. Some said they had a personal connection to Alzheimer's, one man said he had never heard of it.
As the sun set, our team held hands and said a prayer. It was at that moment I felt a difference had been made; to be with these people who had suffered the same loss as I, to know these people had seen first-hand the memories Alzheimer's rips away from its patients, to know these people were fighting for the same cause I had longed to support. It was a great feeling, and it inspired me to do more for the cause.
Laura and I are now in the process of putting a team together for the Alzheimer's walk that takes place in Amarillo on Saturday, Sept. 8. We're hoping to host a big fundraiser prior to the walk to spread more awareness and bring in more money for the cause. After all, a cure will never be found without research. And research will never happen without funding.
That is the Alzheimer's cause through my eyes- my experience, my feelings, my fight.
But what is the disease like through the eyes a patient? I pray I never know, and I pray one day soon no one else will, either.
AMARILLO'S TEAM HOPE MEMBERS:
Melody Ledbetter Lee
MANY THANKS TO THOSE WHO SUPPORTED OUR TEAM IN THE FIGHT AGAINST ALZHEIMER'S:
Dr. Roger A. Hubbard
Brian and Roxanne Myers
Cynthia Lea Mattice
J. M. Cook
Mr. and Mrs. Dallas Giddens
Gary and Debbie Floyd
Jay and Sharon Ricci
Hope Veterinary Clinic