The summer before I became a teenager, I went with my father to the farm in Missouri where he grew up.
One afternoon, we climbed into my grandfather’s car. My grandmother rode up front with my grandpa. My father and I sat in the back.
We rode along country roads, past old barns and tall silos, cornfields, creek bottoms and Angus cattle as black as the earth beneath their feet.
I don’t recall where we were headed. We were probably “going to town,” as they say in the country. I just remember my grandmother kept turning to my grandfather and asking a question.
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“Who is that man and boy in the back seat?”
It was a sad day for me, realizing my father and I had been swept from her memory as if somebody had brushed a feather duster between her ears.
It was not her fault. Her mind was like an old truck stuck in reverse. On those dirt roads, she pointed out broken-down barns from the past and shared memories of playing with paper dolls as a little girl.
She was no longer living in the present tense.
Today, she would be diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease or dementia. Four decades ago, it was called “hardening of the arteries.”
I didn’t fully understand it then, and I struggle with it now, how someone’s memory could wander off like that and never come back.
My father always said it was my grandfather’s prayer to outlive my grandmother so he could take care of her in her declining days. For the last three years of her life, he fixed eggs, toast and coffee three times a day -- morning, noon and night -- because my grandmother always thought it was morning.
She died on Aug. 1, 1974. She was 82. Her funeral was the first time I saw my father cry. (My grandfather passed away two years later.)
In eight weeks, I will be dancing in memory of my grandmother -- and every family whose world has been turned upside down by this dreadful disease.
More than 5 million Americans have Alzheimer’s. That’s enough to fill a city 50 times the size of Macon. It is estimated that number could triple over the next 35 years.
I am proud to be part of the “Dancing Stars of Central Georgia” cast. I am dancing the waltz with Colby Marshall on Saturday, May 3 at Macon City Auditorium. We will begin rehearsing this week. You can follow our progress every week with videos at www.macon.com
Several members of the cast have family members dealing with Alzheimer’s. Others have been impacted the same way we all have. It’s like cancer. It affects everyone at some point, on some level.
I have written many columns over the past 15 years about Alzheimer’s patients and their caregivers. National figures show about 70 percent live at home. It’s a heavy load.
These families shared stories about how their loved ones became increasingly forgetful. They wouldn’t remember to pay their bills. They would leave something on the stove. Or have trouble putting a sentence together.
Then, as the cruel disease progressed, they became strangers in their own houses. They could not recognize themselves in the mirror.
Alzheimer’s is often called “The Long Goodbye.” As one man watched his wife of 55 years slip away, he told me it was “like a funeral without the burial.”
During the time I was working on my book about Coach Billy Henderson, his wife, Fosky, would often sit with us during the interviews. It was heartbreaking to watch the sweet lady who had always been his biggest cheerleader, silenced by the onset of dementia.
I am asking for your help. Of course, you can become a sponsor or purchase a table or individual tickets to the May 3 dance. It will be a fun night. The local Alzheimer’s Association chapter is located at 886 Mulberry St. The phone number is 478-746-7050.
Or you can cast your vote at dancingstarsofcentralgeorgia.com. I am trying to raise $10,000, and $1 equals one vote. This is for the “People’s Choice” award, but I don’t look at it as a popularity contest. If you don’t cast your “vote” for Gris, please vote for somebody, and we all will win.
You don’t have to make a six-figure donation, even with a decimal point included. (However, if you want to show me some love, I will be happy to hug your neck, scratch your back and take you on a picnic.)
All I’m really asking for is $1 from each of you. It won’t break the bank or add to the deficit. You can always find two quarters, three dimes and four nickels under the sofa cushions. Or rolling around on the floorboard of the car. Just go to the website and vote.
One dollar. I appreciate it.
It’s called strength in numbers, and we need it now more than ever.
Reach Gris at 744-4275 or firstname.lastname@example.org.