Still Grandad: Seeing My Grandfather's True Soul Through Alzheimer's Disease
Updated: Mar 7, 2018
Original publication: MariaShriver.com
On June 6, 1944, at the seemingly invincible age of twenty, Ronald Dennis Longman found himself at the helm of a British landing craft packed with other countless young souls as they shook with angst while their boat approached France’s Juno beach; each soldier knowing that when the craft’s door soon dropped they would disembark into a sea of Germans, instantly turning them into open, vulnerable targets.
My Grandad went on to serve in the Yangtze Incident and Korean War, became a professional boxer, circled the world several times and brought home a score of medals– to those of us close to him he was the ‘man with nine lives.’
Often leaving me both amused and perplexed, he had a unique ability to live each day as though he had a foot placed firmly in two different time periods — the present moment and June 6, 1944. “He’s not talking about the bloody war again, is he?” my Nan would ask me sarcastically and under her breath. When Grandad commonly flailed around the house aimlessly, rummaging every cranny for his glasses, it was Nan who told him exactly where he left them or reminded him, with a sigh and rolling of the eyes, that they were dangling around his neck.
Grandad lost his life partner in 2002 after nearly fifty years of marriage, and the episodes of sporadic forgetfulness and confusion morphed abruptly into something more severe. We anticipated that the suddenly pronounced symptoms would diminish with time as he moved through the shock and processed the loss. But they didn’t.
Despite the vast ocean that separated us, for the next six years Grandad and I would speak virtually every day. I traveled often for work which gave way to many days when our ritual took place as I ran through an airport, boarded a ferry or frantically paced a building’s corridor trying to find reception so that I would reach him before he went to bed, accounting for the 8-hour time difference. At first, Alzheimer’s was behind the stage during our conversations but more frequently peeking through the curtain, trying to make its debut.
One day I enthusiastically disclosed we were expecting a baby boy and he listened intensely to the whirlwind of wonder I was experiencing. He mirrored my bliss and eagerly asked, “Do you want to have another child one day?”
“Yes, we would definitely like to if we can,” I eagerly replied.
“Perhaps next time you’ll have a girl,” he said in a strangely foretelling sort of way. “You’ll have both.”
Through the initial stages of Alzheimer’s he was cracking wide open before me, oftentimes baring a newly unprotected soul. As the symptoms advanced it was as if he was reverting back to a pure and innocent young child again. In the throes of some of the most challenging days, I reveled in his words when he said, “We have a special relationship, don’t we?” — words I wouldn’t have imagined him saying before the onset of the disease.
As symptoms progressed, paranoia started to rear its head and Grandad began to wonder if someone had stolen the one thing he cherished the most: his medals. I quickly realized that my devout efforts to dispel the tricks of his mind were futile. He needed me to listen to the words, tangled in his distress, instead of battling them. I decided to have replicas of his medals made for him and later learned that he unknowingly hid his original medals, while the replicas that I sent him were strewn about the house.
In November of 2009, my husband Adam and I, with our 5-month-old son Landon in tow, made our way to England. Grandad’s face illuminated as we walked through the door of his house. His eyes met Landon’s. Then, he raised his arms. Landon reflexively leaned his head forward followed by his arms and body, as if trying to leap out toward his great-grandfather. Adam and I looked at one another in disbelief as we had just observed a moment we couldn’t explain. Two kindred souls had connected in front of us like a couple of wartime comrades reuniting for the first time in decades, except nearly eighty-five years of age separated them.
There were heartwarming snapshots watching dear Grandad bottle feed my son while both studied one another adoringly, and nostalgic glimpses of the person Grandad still managed to preserve in his comedic and sensitive occasions. He retained his core — still the sort of man who displayed boundless gratitude for a pair of socks I bought him for Christmas as a young child. I stealthily recorded a couple of hours of invaluable conversation while he was in the heart of his effortless, peaceful flow: one of his personal history lessons of life, war, tragedy and resilience.
Saying goodbye on that trip felt different than the last. My and Grandad’s emotions unraveled as I gathered my belongings to leave.
“I’ll miss you when you’re gone,” he confessed.
“I’ll miss you too,” I echoed; except my words carried an unbearable touch of permanency. Choked up and with vision blurred by tear-filled eyes and rain-drenched car windows, I waved to Grandad as he stood in his doorway smiling.
On August 8, 2010 at 2:30 PM I was taken by surprise as I stared at 2 parallel lines on a stick. We were becoming a family of four. 6 hours later, I received a call from my mom who was visiting Grandad in England. “He just passed away,” she explained as she wept.
In the span of just hours, one life was moving on while another was beginning. That day was a hurricane of polarizing emotions, both so extreme that they canceled one another and left me temporarily catatonic.
Through my journey with Grandad and my personal quest to understand his new, unwanted occupant, I came to interpret Alzheimer’s as a stressful and agonizing intruder, in his life and ours. In contrast, I also clasped the revelation that although the disease could sometimes evoke a harshness about him, it also gave way to a soft, raw and endearing being as if he were forced to crack wide open to reveal his unprotected soul.
8 months after his passing, my daughter Charlotte was born. His words from 2 years prior, “Perhaps next time you’ll have a girl,” reverberated. When I look at Landon, now 5, I’m sometimes stopped in my tracks as I see Grandad staring back at me from certain angles, and I’m transported back to their first, uncanny encounter.
Alzheimer’s temporarily altered Grandad’s perception of reality and forced us to adapt to a new course, but it would never have the power to transform the preceding eighty years of a life beautifully and fully lived. I feel his life expressed through mine now and in my children. I see him standing proudly, adorned in medals and smiling.