The Piano

 

a good legacy

On the eve of my grandma’s funeral, I took out a pen and some stationary to write a note to place within her casket. However, as I stared at the blank card with a pen poised in my hand, no thoughts or words came to my mind. At first all I could recollect was her time at the nursing home, crippled and unable to function as an adult. I couldn’t think past the pain Alzheimer’s had caused my grandfather …. (Sarah Rybaltowski)

I was about seven years old when Alzheimer’s disease began to cheat my grandmother, Muriel Whitbourne Ellis, of the last ten years of her life. I was too young to remember much of her personality before the illness polluted her brain, which altered her whole being. It seemed that as my mind matured in age, her mind returned to an immature state similar to a young child. She had to be reminded where she was, what event was occurring, and why she had to be there. She lost the ability to comprehend basic life functions, such as brushing her teeth or using a television remote control. Muriel then lost recognition of all her loved ones, including her youngest granddaughter, me. During the few years leading up to her death, the deterioration and backward development of her brain resembled Fitzgerald’s character of Benjamin Button so greatly that she understood no more than a newborn baby at the end of her life. Madeleine L’Engle wrote, “The great thing about getting older is that you don’t lose all the other ages you’ve been.” Unfortunately, I presume any patient of Alzheimer’s would disagree.                                    ( Sarah Rybaltowski)

My first memory of her growing Alzheimer’s occurred when I was a little girl. My family visited my grandma and grandpa at their house in Cortland, NY, and our visit was the epitome of normal. We pulled into the driveway, greeted my grandparents with mammoth hugs and kisses, and ate one of my grandfather’s over-the-top suppers. However, the naiveté which shadowed my understanding of my grandmother’s condition remained blind to me until she and I went into the living room. We settled on the couch in preparation to watch television together, but abruptly my mom called me out of the room. I placed the television remote in my grandma’s frail hands, directing her how to read the TV Guide Channel to select a show. I returned back to the living room approximately twenty minutes later, where my grandmother absentmindedly sat with a confused expression, glancing back and forth at the remote and the television. She had no idea how to use it, and I could only watch with puzzled, frightened eyes.

For the next couple of years I began to understand bits and pieces of the disease’s monumental effects on my grandma. I overheard my mom talking to my grandpa in hushed tones, urging him to place my grandma in a nursing home where she could get adequate care. She was doing outlandish things, such as putting toothpaste on her eyebrows and hiding her belongings all around the house in obscure places. She lost her ability to drive, to cook, and eventually to eat on her own. Once my grandma began to forget who her grandchildren and children were, my grandpa had no choice but to reluctantly place her in a nursing home. Sorrowfully, this is the grandmother I mostly remember.

On the eve of my grandma’s funeral, I took out a pen and some stationary to write a note to place within her casket. However, as I stared at the blank card with a pen poised in my hand, no thoughts or words came to my mind. At first all I could recollect was her time at the nursing home, crippled and unable to function as an adult. I couldn’t think past the pain Alzheimer’s had caused my grandfather, who had slaved away trying to make my grandma as comfortable and pacified as possible as she struggled with her dementia. Images of the tears running down my mom’s face after our trips to the nursing home surfaced to the front of my mind. That one frightful day when I realized, as a little girl, I comprehended more about the purpose of everyday life objects than my educated grandma flashed underneath my eyelids. I felt tears welt up in my heart, and yet none poured from my eyes. My grandmother had passed away, and I could not remember a single memory of her before the Alzheimer’s destroyed her.

On the verge of crumpling up the blank card, I remembered my grandma’s greatest legacy of playing the piano. I was too young to remember her playing, but my mother told me how the songs came to life beneath her fingertips. On my grandma’s wedding day, her parents bought her an upright piano. The piano lived in her living room for fifty years enabling both my mother and my aunt to play it. When my grandma moved into the nursing home, my grandpa gave the piano to me. My grandma may have passed away, but her musical spirit lives within me. Whenever I rest my fingers on the creamy ivory keys, I’m only replicating the familiar motions of a superior pianist, my grandmother.

“The great thing about getting older is that you don’t lose all the other ages you’ve been,” perhaps may not be true for Alzheimer’s patients. Despite this sad reality, my grandmother’s musical talent has inspired me to follow her footsteps. Alzheimer’s disease killed her, but it uplifted my heart’s desire to become a talented pianist worthy of practicing on her own piano. Understanding how fortunate I am to have had such a skillful grandmother, I quickly filled up the blank card.

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One Comment on “The Piano”

  1. B Strevy Says:

    This essay is so powerful. As someone who has also felt the effects of Alzheimer’s. My great-grandmother, the only true grandmother i ever had didn’t even know my name or even the fact that I was a boy. I really can relate to such a story, it really touched me. Thank you Ms. Rybaltowski for such an insight into the life of a person who is so drastically affected by such an awful disease.


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