I remember my grandmother and I used to play a game over the phone. Whenever my grandmother called we’d say, “Hello?” into the receiver back and forth until one of us finally broke and laughed. She lost most of the time, because I would change my voice into all these silly tones and pitches. When we were finished laughing, we’d talk for a bit and then say our goodbyes. I was nine years old the last time we played this game, even though she lived for twelve more years. She had forgotten our game because Alzheimer’s took it from her.
My grandmother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 2002. At seven years old I had no understanding of this illness except that it made you forget things. But through time I came to see that it was so much more than just memory.
According to the Alzheimer’s Association, “Alzheimer’s is a type of dementia that causes problems with memory, thinking and behavior.” By technicality, it is a building up of plaque in the spaces between nerve cells, suspected to block communication amongst nerve cells. It begins in regions of the brain responsible for memory before it spreads into other parts.
Before Alzheimer’s came, Cruz María was a vibrant, witty woman married to Ruperto Gonzalez. She was born in Villalba, Puerto Rico and lived the majority of her life on the island, raising five children as a stay-at-home wife and mother. Her life was filled with many dear family members and friends who loved her. Life was simple and it was absolutely content and happy.
And while I wasn’t alive for any of this, I know it to be true by the way people talk about her. The thing I remember most about my grandmother is how she was loved. The person who loved her so thoroughly was my grandpa.
I could end my post here. I could stop right here and only give you half the story of my grandmother’s last few years, skipping the reality of Alzheimer’s. I could stop after telling you that she forgot our names and faces and where the forks and spoons were kept in the kitchen . But I can’t do that to her, or to my grandpa, or to you—it wouldn’t do her life any justice.
Because she also forgot how to walk and go to the bathroom. She forgot how to eat and speak and laugh. She forgot how to sit up, how to cook arroz con gandules, and she forgot that she loved my grandpa.
I remember one specific visit (one of many visits to Puerto Rico while growing up), where I watched my grandmother’s memory fade right before my eyes. At this particular point she was already in a wheelchair, and on this specific afternoon, we were sitting in the living room watching the television when my grandpa walked by. My mom said,
“Hey mami, do you know who that man is?”
My grandmother’s eyes followed him into the kitchen, watching intently.
“Oh. Well don’t you think he’s good-looking?” my mom asked.
She nodded quickly. “Oh, yes.”
“Well I think he’s single– I think he’s interested in you!” said my mom.
“Oh really?” My grandmother smiled and perked up. She looked at him shyly like a teenage girl. “I think I like him too!”
Here is the truthful picture of my grandmother’s remaining years before her passing: bedridden with tubes coming in and out of her. Eyes closed, soft skin, crying at night from nightmares. Visits from her five children surrounding her bed while she slept. Morning visits from the nurses. A feeding tube. But what gets me the most about this image is my grandpa faithfully beside her, every day.
Because what I remember the most about my grandmother is how she was loved. I watched my grandpa care for her and love her fully and absolutely for the long fifteen years after her diagnosis.
When it got bad, he was beside her. He never wanted to put her in a home. He made sure she was always comfortable, fixing the pillow beneath her head throughout the day. When she needed to be spoon fed, he lovingly fed her. It was the same thing when she was moved to a feeding tube. And when he realized she’d be laying in a bed for the rest of her life, that she’d regressed back to infant-state, in need of diaper changes and feeding and bathing and soothing, he was so faithful to care for her. In sickness and in health.
I grew up visiting Puerto Rico twice a year and it was never for vacation. It was so my mom could help my grandpa by cleaning the house, by helping him with my grandmother, and by reminding him that he needed to eat too. I spent every summer and winter break indoors– on arguably one of the most beautiful islands in the world– reading books and talking with my grandpa in between his tending to my grandmother. And at the time I didn’t realize this, but he was showing me what love was. He was giving me a true example of love. As I grew older, I became so aware of how he loved her, how he took his wedding vows seriously. For better or for worse. In sickness and in health. He never let her go. I don’t think this would have been possible without even a drop of faith in God. My grandmother was a woman of faith, raised Catholic, and through this experience my grandpa really turned to the Lord for strength.
On June 1, 2017, my grandmother passed away. My grandparents were married for fifty-nine years, six months and two days.
I can’t say I truly remember my grandmother as she was before Alzheimer’s. But through the whole experience, I saw the fruit of everything my grandparents had sewn in their marriage. They worked hard to choose each other every day, to put their kids first, to never give up. By the end, it was all for this. It’s the most amazing example of love I’ve ever had the privilege to witness. Their love story is a part of my life story, and I’m so thankful for that. I think I can speak for all of us, for the entire familia Gonzalez when I say that we are left with a lasting impression of Ruperto and Cruz María Gonzalez. We are all moved by the magnitude of this situation, but mostly by their faithful love.
I sit here writing this, editing this, and I am in awe at how my grandpa loved her. I didn’t get the chance to know her so well, but by how he cared for her, I knew she was something special. And by how he loved her, I knew he was something special too.