2010 AFA Teens for Alzheimer’s Awareness College Scholarship
Snuffling noses. Warm breath. Velvet muzzles inquiring into pockets, searching for carrots. Giggling. A strong hand covering my own, lying it flat with the crowning glory of a crunchy carrot. Silken lips delicately plying the carrot from my hand. This is one of the earliest memories I have of my dad, with us feeding the horses stabled around the corner.
Alzheimer’s disease. Not something you’d normally consider about someone under the age of 60. A 41-year-old man with three children under the age of 12? Never, you’d think. That disease is only for old people. It wouldn’t affect such a young man. But it did. And it was my dad.
I always wanted to be just like my dad. He was my hero, best friend and confidante all in one. He was a great cook, told the best stories and was a truly talented artist. Any animal he approached seemed to instantly fall in love with him—a quality I’ve been lucky enough to have inherited. I fell head over heels in love with horses at a young age, something I attribute to daily walks leading to visits around the corner. Many an hour was spent petting the soft noses peeking out over the fence, waiting for a carrot. At the suggestion of my dad, riding lessons commenced at three years old and have continued throughout my childhood. The first time I sat on a horse, he turned his head, looked me in the eye, and I knew I found my true love. My dad was right there with me, always repeating the worldly advice that “Horses are a whole lot easier and nicer than boys. Aren’t they?” And I’d always laugh and reply, “Of course they are.”
Even as years passed, I never tired of waking up early on the weekends to head out for lessons with my dad and then make our way for the daily visits around the corner. Our tradition was to always bring enough carrots for everyone in the paddocks and a few extra just in case somebody felt like they needed an extra one. School filled up many of my waking hours, just as work filled up most of his, but somehow, we always managed to go for our walk and visit the horses. During these walks we would talk about our days. I would tell him all my secrets and dreams; he would regale me with stories from his childhood and encourage me to pursue my dream to become a veterinarian. Every day lent itself to a new discovery of the past, a new secret to share, and a bright future to look forward to.
It started with the carrots. “Where are the carrots?” I’d ask. “Oh jeez, I forgot to grab them again. Sorry guys, no treats today,” he’d reply. The funny thing was, he had never forgotten the carrots in all the years we’d gone for our walks, but suddenly, he forgot them more often than he remembered them.
Then it was the riding lessons. My early morning weekend buddy became my mom and sometimes my younger sister. My dad would forget to wake up, hitting the snooze button over and over again.
He began to become very disorganized and frustrated at his lack of memory. He forgot his keys, shoes and papers around the house. He would amble off in the wrong direction when he went for walks, forgetting our daily destination entirely. Over the next few years he became even more forgetful, losing his job and having trouble getting dressed properly. Doctors attributed it to depression and stress from work; when I turned 12, they changed their diagnosis.
One night, he couldn’t remember how to get home. He pulled over to the side of the road and sat in his car for hours. A police officer stopped and looked in on him. My dad didn’t know where he was, where he lived, or how he had gotten to this spot. He couldn’t even remember his own name.
At the age of 41 he was diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s disease. The diagnosis didn’t mean much to me at the time. I didn’t know what the words meant; all I knew was something bad was happening to my dad. I didn’t want him to be anything other than the funny, happy man who had taught me about life and given me unconditional love. But he started to change. He wouldn’t call my mom, my siblings or me by our names because he was afraid he would confuse them. He couldn’t remember the simplest of things, like how to tie his shoes or whether his watch was facing the right way. “What’s this?” he would ask. “It’s a spoon, Daddy. You eat with it.”
The hardest part was watching him slowly become someone else. He was no longer the same man who would cook dinner every night or doodle on a napkin. He was merely the shell of his former self. And there was nothing we could do to stop it.
As part of the disease my dad would sometime forget and leave the stove on or the front door open. In order to keep him safe, we decided to move him into an assisted living home where he could be taken care of 24/7. I hated visiting him there. He wasn’t my dad there; he was a stranger we regularly visited.
Over the next three years he slowly wasted away. He lost weight; he never drew anymore but merely sat all day staring at nothing. He hardly ever spoke when we visited him. This wasn’t the same man I had spent my childhood looking up to and spent countless hours talking to and exchanging stories with. This wasn’t my dad. I hated school, I couldn’t stand being at home, and I couldn’t pretend everything was going to be okay because my dad would never be the same again. Horses were the only thing that remained constant in my life; they were the only comfort I sought when my world was falling apart.
My dad died after succumbing to a septic infection from a catheter. He was only 44 but resembled a 95-year-old man. After his death I felt lost. My family felt incomplete. I spent most of my days sitting in horses’ stalls, feeling comforted by the only link I had left to my dad.
It’s been almost four years since my dad died yet Alzheimer’s still has a big impact on my family. My younger siblings have hardly any memories of my dad without Alzheimer’s because they were too young to remember much. I tell them stories about what we used to do together as a family, but it’s not the same for them. I was lucky enough to have had time to make lasting memories, while they can never make those memories. This disease brought our family closer together and it taught us that we should never take any day for granted because life’s too short.
I still go riding every weekend, but usually I go alone. Every time I step out of the car and catch a whiff of the smells of leather, hay and horses, I think of my dad and how lucky I was to have gotten to spend time with such a loving person who taught me about life. I’m blessed to be able to say that I never doubted for one minute of my life that I was unconditionally loved and that I learned how wonderful it is to be able to give this kind of love to others. He introduced me to my love and lifelong passion for horses and inspired me to continue pursuing a career in veterinarian medicine to help the animals we both loved so dearly. My strongest memories of him are with horses, and every time I get on a horse, I remember.
Katherine Henley plans to attend Colorado State University in Fort Collins, CO in the fall and study biological sciences on the pre-veterinary track.
First Runner-Up: Natalie Stadelman, Hudson, OH
Somewhere Beyond the Sea
“Somewhere beyond the sea, somewhere waiting for me…” this music, playing from the TV was trapped in my head, ricocheting back and forth as if between two walls. I was aware of everything going on around me as the splash of black and white splayed across our faces. I turned my head slowly, evaluating the room—my family, the nurses, and then I turned to see a face that was so familiar to me. I looked next to me at those eyes. Those eyes where I used to find solace and be able to see my entire world. Those eyes that danced even during the hard times. Those eyes that I could look into and see my entire world. I looked next to me at those eyes, and they were hollowed, vacuous. Physically, her body was familiar but not my grandmother’s eyes.
The proverbial notes of a song fluttered through the room like a nostalgic ribbon as I scrutinized her eyes. I studied them intently and then gazed at the television to see her, 50 years younger—posing for a prom picture with her soulmate, waltzing with her husband, rocking her newborn baby, lighting up a room as she walked in. As I looked back to her now, beautiful as it ever was, I saw a glimmer of something I had missed for so long—recognition. Slowly a smile began to glide across her delicate peach lips, tipping them up at each end.
It had been months since she recognized us. Months since the last time she had talked. Months since I had been able to search those eyes and see that cherished glint. Suddenly, I could feel it all coming back to me as I watched the television screen—the old family photos dancing their way in front of us, the familiar Sinatra music filling the air, and then I went stiff. Next to me I recognized a tapping of toes, a faint snap of fingers. I stared in disbelief at my grandmother in her wheelchair as she slowly tapped to the beat of the music like she used to, as if she was who she had always been.
I could feel myself as a young girl, with her hand in mine, dancing around the living room—her contagious laughter filling the air, capturing the attention of everyone in sight. I could see her dancing with my grandfather after dinner to the very same song that now filled the room.
I remembered only weeks before sitting at my computer creating the DVD—scanning each family photo, listening to music that was decidedly the soundtrack of her life, and compiling it to portray her life story. For the past months I had been vicariously remembering her only through memories, looking at pictures and bringing them to life in my head, as if this was all I had, as if she was already gone.
“That’s my father,” I heard a gentle voice say. A voice I thought I would never hear again. I sat still not moving, not breathing. As if in a bubble that could vaporize at any moment, I carefully turned and looked into her eyes. It was her. Distantly in the background, I heard small gasps escape as we all sat paralyzed with disbelief. Her eyes were open and alive, filled with an energy and passion unique to her, unseen for almost a year. I fell into them as I remembered who she was—the woman who devoted her entire life to her family, who helped us laugh when we all felt like crying, the woman who was lighthearted and vivacious and taught me how to “flirt with boys,” who emanated an irresistible essence. I saw her again, not the woman who could no longer talk, or the one who was imprisoned by Alzheimer’s, but as the woman who she really was.
“Unforgettable, in every way,” a deep raspy voice sang, as the camera zoomed in on my grandfather’s face. “I love him,” she whispered. I looked around the room, fearing I was the only one witnessing this miracle, but I was surrounded by mystified faces.
I felt a familiar essence, one I had not felt in so long, begin to enter the room. She looked at me, and for the first time in months, she didn’t just look at me, but she saw me. She recognized me. I let out a huge breath as I suddenly realized I had not been breathing. Everything about her began to race through my head.
For the past seven months she had become a captive of her own mind. She went from my grandmother to a patient, as if she wasn’t really there. I had accepted it, as though human spirit, like the word implies, is lightweight and transparent, and fades away when external forces take over. Immediately, I realized that all the days I went to visit her, she was still in there somewhere—someone just needed to tunnel past the debris of the disease to rediscover her perfect essence. In that instant, I discovered that everyone has a resilient force, a core, and no matter what happens, it is always there—we just need to tap into it.
All I could hear were the notes of the music, the soundtrack of her life, and all I could see was her. It was as if I was seeing her for the first time as she looked back at me. Her eyes called to me, willed me to look closer. I’m still here, they murmured to me. I could hear them talking to me like she always had—I know you’re here and I hope you know how much I love you. I swallowed the knot that had formed in my throat. A tear ran down my face, leaving a salty sweetness on my tongue—a bittersweet flavor like the moment I was in.
As the pictures on the screen faded away, so did the captive moment we had shared. I knew this encounter would forever change my life. It was as though the music, the photographs and the family had enveloped her and had taken her to a place she had been yearning to revisit, to reconnect with—to the life she once lived. The gloomy nursing home room went pitch dark as the final picture faded, except for an invisible light. It was her essence, her enduring spirit, rediscovered and released from the cage her mind had put in—dancing around the room, brushing each of our shoulders, leaving behind a sweet reminder that it was still alive.
A week later I sat across from her, looking into those eyes that had appeared so empty to me before, but now I knew they were anything but. She was still there; even if she didn’t recognize me, I still recognized her. Her passion, her energy that made her so special, was still there: you just had to spend some time finding it.
Her spirit strengthened me. I began to finally understand why I have always been so driven, so compelled to do my best, to keep going when others stop, and never waiver from my convictions. This realization, that everyone has an essence, an innate will that is stronger than any external limits, has become the source of my achievements. The sweet perfume of my grandmother’s spirit inspires me to find ways to help others discover the power enveloped within the human soul.
Life for me has continually changed and I have had to adapt to many new situations. I’ve had to say many goodbyes, but I also learned the value of a new hello. The discovery of my essence, inspired by my grandmother, is what motivates me. Encouraging my ambition is the belief that no matter what situation a person is in, their spirit, their passion, their being will always come through. My will drives me to make changes in my community and my school. It also inspires me to share my passions with others and help them discover their interests.
Very often I am asked to lead complex projects, develop a team, or handle difficult situations. When a task is laid before me, I begin to choreograph the steps I will take to complete it, set to the music of my grandmother’s spirit. With solid resolve, I apply what I’ve gained from her energy to help me attain my goals or find gifts in others. The glimpse into my grandmother’s soul through those eyes is what guides me through my every day and motivates me to make a difference in this world and encourage others to recognize that in everyone a unique essence lies.
Natalie Stadelman is currently undecided where she will attend college in the fall but plans to major in business.
Second Runner-Up: Rebecca Herzberg, Cherry Hill, NJ
You Are as Beautiful as the Moon
Eins – One…
One. The number of people I have known with advanced Alzheimer’s disease. But that person was my Zayde, Joe, and the experience will stay with me forever. As a toddler, I began going to my grandparents’ house for the day so that they could care for me while my parents were at work. We would sit at the kitchen table, and my grandfather would teach me how to count in Yiddish. Once we mastered numbers, we moved on to Yiddish tunes. Even as a small child, I realized that this was my grandfather’s special love. After each visit I returned home with a new song. My favorite was Sheyn vi di levone—You are as beautiful as the moon. But those beautiful days didn’t last very long.
Tsvey – Two…
Two. The number of choices my grandfather had. My grandfather was born and raised in Poland. During Nazi occupation, he was tricked into believing that he could emigrate to either the United States or Russia. Like most people who were presented with these options, he chose the former. He would up in a Siberian labor camp where the conditions were unspeakable. Barely holding on to his humanity, he managed to endure until the end of World War II, eventually finding his way to Italy. Stumbling over the opportunity to join a chorus, he toured the country, hanging on until he could make his way to America.
Here, he met and married my grandmother, who had survived the horrors of the Auschwitz concentration camp. Together they managed to start a new life. He became a butcher—a vocation he was not particularly fond of, but one that let him support his family well. He toiled in his butcher shop until his retirement, but we all know he would much rather have spent those years singing!
By the time I was born in 1992, my grandfather had been retired for several years. Entering his home, visitors would be serenaded by his melodic voice. “Bay mir bistu sheyn, bay mir hos tu heyn, bay mir bistu eyner oyf der velt.” To me, you are lovely, to me, you are charming, to me, you are the only one in the world.
That’s what I thought, that I was the only one in the world—until he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, and the day would come when he would no longer know who I was. Little did my grandparents know that their fight for survival during the war was only the first nightmarish battle they would wage.
Dray – Three…
Three. The number of years it took me to realize that something wasn’t right. At first he would simply forget where he had placed something. Then he had to ask my dad to help him knot his tie because he couldn’t remember how to do it. Later, he called 911 when he was convinced that some workmen in the house were burglars. But I really noticed that something was wrong when he wanted to teach me the same songs he had taught me before. He had always kept track of our repertoire and never tried to teach me something I already knew. The first time it happened, I let it slide. He was old after all. But as time progressed, I knew his forgetfulness wasn’t normal.
Four. The number of grandchildren he had. My sister, Erica, and I were the oldest. We had spent so much time with him—he should have remembered our names. By the time our younger cousins were born, my grandfather’s Alzheimer’s was more advanced. He never really recalled their names.
At first he couldn’t quite place neighbors or people he didn’t see that often. But as time went on, he started forgetting the names of people he knew well. First he forgot Erica’s name. Then mine. In the beginning, he seemed to recognize us when he saw us, even if he couldn’t quite recall our names. Eventually, even a glimpse of recognition eluded him.
On a visit to our house, my grandmother gently encouraged my grandfather with, “Joe, say hi to Rebecca.” His response, in Yiddish, was, “Who’s Rebecca?’ My grandmother pushed on, “Stevie’s daughter. Your granddaughter.” “What?” That’s when I realized that not only were names slipping from his grasp, vocabulary was escaping him as well. I tried not to let this faze me, because I knew it wasn’t his fault. But this wasn’t the grandfather who used to sit and count in Yiddish with me. Now, I was the one struggling with recognition. I did not recognize the man Alzheimer’s had replaced my Zayde with.
Finf – Five…
Five. The number of people it took to provide full-time care for him. A day person, a night person, five days a week. Two people on the weekend. And my dad. My grandfather had wandered outside one day, walking in circles and talking to himself. Following him, my grandmother tried to bring him back inside. By this stage of the disease, he was unstable on his feet. She grabbed his arm, but he kept circling. Tripping over his feet, she fell and broke both of her wrists. He had no idea what was happening and didn’t help my grandmother get back up. Fortunately, a neighbor rushed over to aid them.
Now, my grandmother was forced to stop resisting my father’s pleas to arrange for assistance. She could no longer hold down the fort. Clearly, my grandfather could not be left to fend for himself. Almost immediately after this episode, Zayde began to have trouble remembering who my dad was and would often think that he was someone he had known in Europe. He would revert to those awful days and start talking about the war. Amazingly, he was able to construct sentences about those memories and would start shouting, “Bad people! Terrible, terrible things happened!”
We hired Eva to take care of my grandfather and the house. My dad would go over every night and help give him a shower and a shave. Looking at himself in the mirror, Joe would ask, “Who’s that?” Sometimes he would try to introduce the man on the other side of the mirror to my dad. He was looking at his own reflection but didn’t recognize himself. Soon, he would be taken to the other side.
Zeks – Six…
Six. The duration, in weeks, of the final chapter. At the beginning of my junior year, I left with my high school class on a four month study abroad program. I would never see my Zayde again. When I went to say goodbye, he didn’t hear me—he was sleeping. A few weeks after arriving in Israel, I learned that my grandfather had fallen out of bed and had broken his hip. Apparently, he was in severe pain, though he wasn’t able to express it. The doctors needed to operate. The operation was successful, but Zayde could make no progress in rehab because he couldn’t understand instructions. His condition declined. He couldn’t swallow his food. A feeding tube became necessary. On October 5, 2008, I received the phone call informing me that my grandfather had passed away. It wasn’t possible for me to return to the United States for the funeral, but I comforted myself by knowing that his suffering had finally ended. After years of struggling with Alzheimer’s, his heart had failed him. But my heart will always be filled with the joy he conveyed through his songs.
Umendikayt – Infinity…
Next fall, I will be attending Tufts University. I plan to major in political science so that I can eventually have a say in what happens in our government. I want to acquire the skills I will need to lobby for various issues such as stem cell research, a possible cure for Alzheimer’s disease. Furthermore, our leaders must hear personal stories, so they understand the importance of finding a cure for this hideous disease. I hope that one day another grandfather will actually be able to remember telling his granddaughter that she is Sheyn vi di levone—as beautiful as the moon.
Rebecca Herzberg plans to attend Tufts University in Medford, MA in the fall and major in either political science or international relations.