When my childhood dog died, I cried for three days. During those three days, I probably slept a total of six hours. I was nineteen years old at the time and had gotten that dog—Princess—when I was three years old. I was devasted. I could tell you exactly what I was doing the day that she died. I could tell you that I had on my high school English honor society shirt. I could tell you that it was roughly 9:40 pm when I let her outside and her legs stopped working. I could tell you that when the vet told us it was time he was wearing green scrubs and that when she tried to look up at me for the last time as she went to sleep there was one brown spot in the white of her left eye.
When my grandpa died two months later, all I remember is that when my mom called me from the hospital and told me in a tear-choked voice that Grandpa was gone, I said, “Oh.”
I should understand Alzheimer’s because it is a brain thing and I study brain things. The thing is, though, that even people who actually spend their lives studying brain things don’t understand Alzheimer’s. No one’s quite sure how you get it, no one knows how to stop it, and no patient presents it the same way. It doesn’t make sense and it’s a very weird thing. It’s a lot of other things, too, like sad and frustrating and tragic, but I think that mostly, for brain people, it’s weird.
I think that we rely more on other people acting like people than we realize. And when they stop acting like people, stop using logic, stop making sense, it’s weird. It’s foreign in a way that’s hard to understand until you see it. When you watch a person’s mind unwind it’s almost like they stop being a person. And it feels horrific and wrong to call a person not a person because you’re told that all people are people, but at a certain point you look into their eyes and you feel that there’s no one in there anymore. And then what do you do?
There’s one thing that’s weirder than a person with Alzheimer’s, and that’s a dog with dementia. Because what dog gets dementia? But the vet assured us that it happened more often than we knew, and that there was really nothing to be done. We just had to try and limit unfamiliar stimuli and make sure to keep an eye on her around strangers. He gave us a prescription to give her to keep her calm. Did you know that dogs can take Prozac?
I have dog hair on my nightstand and fava beans in my pockets. The dog hair is self-explanatory because besides her collar, which I also have, there isn’t a much more apt keepsake for remembering a dog. I don’t have an old birthday card or souvenir because she was a dog and she didn’t give me birthday cards or bring back souvenirs from vacation, and so I have some dog hair.
I have fava beans in my pocket because there was a bowl of them on the counter of Hot Dog Richie’s, and one day as we stood in line, my grandpa handed me one and told me to keep it in my pocket for good luck. And so I did. And it’s still there in my coat pocket. I’ve bought new coats since then, but I always make sure to transfer it so when I stick my hand down to the bottom, I feel its worn edges. In fact, there’s a fava bean in every one of my coat pockets. I pick them up whenever I get a hot dog with my grandma. Hot Dog Richie’s just closed, though, so now I have to be extra vigilant about not misplacing my beans. They need to be there so that every time I put my hands in my pockets I feel them and I remember that they’re for good luck, and I remember the man that gave me the first one, even if he forgot me in the end.
I told a friend once, near the end, that I was having a bad day. The time had come. Grandpa—what was left of him—had tried to attack Grandma. The paramedics took him away, maybe to the hospital or maybe to the nursing home he would die in. I don’t know the logistics and I don’t particularly care to ask anybody how it went down because that’s not really the part that matters. The point was that he got taken away and it was sad but not in the soul-crushing way. It was more so the type of sadness where you float through the rest of the day, and maybe the next day, because a Bad Thing has happened and it doesn’t feel right to return to the ground just yet.
I told my friend this and she said, “I know what you mean. My grandma has been getting forgetful. We’re afraid she might have dementia.”
And I thought, Do you know what I mean? Does your grandma forget who her husband is? Does she accuse him of stealing her money? Does she try to hit him? Does she call out to her long-dead mother at all hours of the day and night because the concept of time has left her? When you look in her eyes, do you feel like you’re looking into the eyes of another human being? And when you don’t, does that make you question what kind of person you are?
And I said, “That’s too bad.”
I told that same friend, about a month after my dog died, that I didn’t think I was going to go with her to the shelter that week because it still made me a little sad.
“That’s totally okay,” she said. “Take as much time off as you need. I understand.”
She doesn’t even have a dog.
The man that I called Grandpa was not my biological grandfather. I have one of those but he’s not really in the picture. And so to me, Grandpa was the man I would learn was my grandma’s second husband, who had a whole other family that I knew and maybe another one that I didn’t, but that didn’t really matter to me. He was just Grandpa and that was how it was.
I realized later in life that I never really knew all that much about his life. I knew that he grew up on a farm and was a police officer for a while, then a bus driver, but that was about it. What I did know was that he worked at the Home Depot, where we would visit him sometimes, and that after work he’d strap me into the back of his red van and take me to 7-Eleven whenever I stayed over. I know that he’d fill up the biggest cup there with a Coke-flavored Slurpee and then I’d mix a bunch of flavors together and we’d go home and watch Wheel of Fortune and that was our ritual.
I also know that he really loved my dog Princess. And she loved him. Because I don’t know how she knew who it was, but when he came to visit, my ordinarily timid little mutt would just lose her mind. She would meet him at the door howling and then follow him to the recliner in the family room, where she would be glued to his side until he left. You could tell because she was a white dog and he insisted on wearing black pants whenever he came over, despite us warning him not to.
When my grandpa wasn’t around, Princess was my dog, but when he came over, she was his. Or maybe he was hers. Either way, once he walked into the house, no one else mattered. And so when the day came when the doorbell rang and she didn’t jump up so fast she slid across the linoleum, we knew something was off.
After I got the phone call from my mom she bought me a plane ticket and I flew home from school for four days. There wasn’t a funeral—he was cremated, he didn’t want one—but I flew home anyway because when a family member dies that’s just what you do. You have to go home because you’re supposed to be with your family to mourn in times of tragedy.
The thing was that it didn’t really feel like a tragedy. It was sad, but it was more like the end of mourning than the beginning. We had been mourning ever since he stopped remembering our names, forgot how to eat by himself, started talking only to people who weren’t there. It felt like we had been mourning for years, and now we could finally stop because at long last his mind could stop the fight it had been steadily losing. And I don’t want to say that it was a relief because you don’t want to say that about someone dying, but when I got home it felt like everyone had let out the breath we’d been holding for the past two years. And I don’t think I believe in an afterlife but a part of me felt like now maybe he was whole again somewhere else and that made me feel better than I had in a while.
I had been home for winter break for three days when my dog died. When I had started college a year and a half prior, it had been one of my biggest concerns that she would die while I was away. She was, after all, fifteen years old and starting to get that spaced out look that would become her norm. And so every time I left for school after break I would pet her on the head and tell her not to die on me. To wait until I was home, because I guess that seemed like it would be better.
We joked later that she had waited for me. As if in the back of her dog brain she felt like the end was near but she held on a few more days because somehow she knew I was coming back. It was like she listened to me, and she waited. But I don’t think it really helped that she did.
What did help, two months later, was imagining that when my grandpa stepped into the afterlife I don’t believe in, she was waiting there by the recliner.
On one particularly bad day, Grandpa was hallucinating animals. We didn’t know what kind, just that they were black and white and they weren’t cats but they were everywhere. And we kept trying to say that no, there weren’t any animals in the house, but he wouldn’t believe us. We just couldn’t see them. How could we not see them? They were right in front of the T.V.
Most of the delusions were relatively harmless ones—animals running around, the mailman coming eight times in one day—and sometimes they weren’t. Sometimes he saw a woman who was his wife but at the same time not his wife. And when he saw his real wife he didn’t recognize her; he only asked that the woman came back because he loved her and he was going to marry her. Her name was Gayle and he loved her and it might’ve been cute if he wasn’t having this argument with Gayle—the real Gayle—who took care of him day and night and loved him through the delusions and the yelling and the threats and the accusations of thievery. Other Gayle proved that he did love Real Gayle, somewhere, and that only made it harder when he screamed and cursed and eventually tried to hurt her.
The rides back from their house toward the end were mostly quiet ones. It’s hard to talk about something you don’t understand, maybe don’t even want to try to understand. We spent the rides wrestling it in our heads, this person who didn’t seem like a person anymore but who was once a person who we loved. Instead we thought about other things, things we could handle thinking about, things that might have an answer.
“Is it…does he see…badgers?” I asked on the way home once.
Dogs are easier because you can trick yourself into believing that their minds are still there. If you hold your hand above a dog’s head, its instinct is to sit and stare at that hand. Almost every dog will do this. It’s instinctual.
If you hold your hand over your dog’s head and say, “sit,” it will seem like she listened to you, like she remembered that you taught her that when you were four years old. And if you yell her name she’ll come because dogs tend to come to yelling, regardless of what’s being yelled. So she might look a little vacant sometimes and you can tell that she forgets where the back door is, but if you yell her name she’ll still come because she probably doesn’t remember that either but it looks like she does.
I think there’s something about doghood that’s different from personhood. Doghood is in playing fetch and going on walks and wagging tails and it’s only when all of this stops that it seems like it is lost. Personhood is harder to pinpoint but easier to lose. And when it feels like it’s gone it’s a lot harder to make it feel like it’s still there.
The night that my grandpa died—the person, not the body—he had been confused the whole night. He spent most of the time calling out for Helen, his dead mother, and he thought there was a gang of bandits patrolling the neighborhood because my grandma had left In the Heat of the Night on the T.V. I tried talking about something, even the bandits, but nothing was really getting through anymore. In the moments where we were silent, however, I could almost forget that the man in the recliner wasn’t who he had been. But then he would ask about the bandits again and the illusion would break.
And then when I was falling asleep that night, I heard him in his room down the hall, asking my grandma where that girl was and if she was going to be staying. “That’s your granddaughter, Nora,” she said.
“Is it? Is she our granddaughter?” he asked.
“She is. She’s just down the hall,” she answered.
“That’s nice,” he said. Then, a minute later, “Who is that girl that’s here? Is she staying?”
I learned in Psychology 191: Cognition and Memory that Alzheimer’s patients typically forget their relatives from least to most related. My professor told me that it was usually the grandchildren first, then children, then spouses. But I was his step grandchild from a third marriage, and I was the last one he forgot.
We had Grandpa’s memorial at a Golden Corral, which was his favorite restaurant. It was not a restaurant my family would ordinarily step foot in, but we did it because Grandma thought that that was probably what he would have wanted and she was probably right.
His other family was at the memorial—he had three daughters, five grandchildren, and one great-grandaughter—and so the dingy party room in the back was packed. I found myself sitting in a corner between my parents, avoiding speaking to his actual biological relatives if I could. And it wasn’t that I didn’t like them—I do, they’re nice people—but I couldn’t help feeling like the memorial wasn’t for me. Because as I learned as I got older, he wasn’t around very much when his daughters were growing up, and he barely knew his biological granddaughters. He didn’t take them for Slurpees or watch Wheel of Fortune with them like he did with me. He was my Grandpa but he was their grandfather, and seeing them there, grieving the time they wouldn’t have with him, I felt like I had stolen some of that from them. And so even though I had the shape of a eulogy in my head—and two years deep into an English major, it would’ve been a good one—I didn’t speak when everyone else did. I stayed in my corner and I felt grief, but mostly I just let them feel grief, because it felt like they deserved some time.
On the third day of hysteria over my dog dying, even I knew that it was getting a little ridiculous, but I couldn’t stop. And no one tried very hard to stop me because it was my dog. She was everyone else’s dog, too, but I grew up with her and she was just more inherently mine than anyone else’s. And so I got to be hysterical for three days because it was my right, more than anyone else’s, to be hysterical for three days if I wanted to.
On the third day, though, I think my dad was getting concerned because he announced we were going out and told me to put on my shoes. I told him that I couldn’t go anywhere, that I was wearing sweatpants and hadn’t washed my hair, but he said that didn’t matter. So I put on my shoes and got in the car and he drove me three minutes from the house to the shore of Lake Michigan.
There was no one on the beach, because it was December, and so we walked out to the edge of the water alone and watched the waves. He put his arm around me and told me that it was okay to be sad, but that she had had a good life, and I should at least be happy for that.
You have to understand that we are not watch-the-waves people. We don’t stand on the shore of an unimaginably large body of water and ponder life very often. We aren’t saps. But on that day I was allowed to be a watch-the-waves person. I pondered life. I was a sap. It was my right.
There came a time when I wasn’t allowed to stay at my grandparents’ house anymore because my parents were afraid of what might happen. He had already almost had the cops called once when he tried to grope a nurse who was taking care of him while my grandma was out. And a day rarely went by when he didn’t accuse my grandma of stealing his money or his jewelry or her jewelry or the car. And he swore and screamed vile things and they were worried that he would become violent, and try to hit someone, try to hit me, and so I wasn’t allowed to stay there anymore. And I agreed that he might get violent and that I shouldn’t go there anymore because he didn’t know who I was and I didn’t know what he’d do.
There came a time when my parents warned me not to move too quickly around Princess, or get too close to her face, because she might try to bite me. She was going deaf and was easily startled and didn’t really recognize us anymore, and so we didn’t know what she might do. But I still ran around the yard with her and messed with her ears and wiggled her nose so that she would sneeze and laid on the floor with my nose centimeters from hers. Daring her to bite me. Because I knew that she wouldn’t. And she didn’t. I knew just what she’d do.