Gratitude is the memory of the heart. What better way to show my undying love and dedication to my grandmother and all that she’s taught me, than being an awareness advocate for the debilitating disease that lead to her untimely death? I won’t go “All Lives Matter” and talk about all the other illnesses that deserve attention, but it is important to note that some other conditions and treatments can increase ones risk of Alzheimer’s.
In 1992, shortly after I graced the earth, my grandmother was diagnosed with Pancreatic Cancer. At that time, her prognosis was bleak. Today, the long term survival rate is 7%. She was the first survivor her doctors had ever encountered, and to this day she is a point of reference. (Go, Grandma!) Studies directly link pancreatic cancer to diabetes, and thereafter, Alzheimer’s disease. While my grandmother stuck around for over a decade following her bout with cancer and diabetes diagnoses, her battle was certainly not hers alone.
Of course, as adolescents we don’t always understand the gravity of health issues, and often struggle with the ability to adequately care for individuals dealing with them. For me, my grandmother was everything. Sometimes I wonder how people go on after losing a parent in their youth, but then I realize that I already did. My grandmother was a permanent fixture in my home from as early as I can remember. My favorite memories with her include Christmas sleepovers in her room with my brother featuring calls to Santa for our naughty behavior, Walker Texas Ranger, Mrs. Doubtfire, New Years’ Eve celebrations, spankings with household objects and a host of memorable quotes and teachable moments.
Perhaps the memory that is so vivid to me was the moment I realized what Alzheimer’s was doing to her. In high school, every day I would come home from school to her adult day care van waiting outside our house. I sometimes resented the responsibility of caring for her for those few hours, but now I would give anything in the world for one more day of that. She had high needs and could slip away, literally and figuratively, in a matter of moments. I used to bring her into the basement with me where I would lock us in while I watched TV and did my homework. Our basement had a kitchen, bathroom, tons of open space, and a mirrored wall with an exit to the backyard (where she could not escape from on her own).
I hate to admit, but I often tuned her out because she was never really talking to me. One day, she was particularly chatty and excited! I looked up, to find her fully engaged in a conversation with herself. For a moment I giggled, because she was so incredibly adorable! After further observation, I was deeply saddened. My grandmother did not recognize herself in the mirror and was convinced that this person she was seeing was outside talking to her. She opened the door to the backyard about six or seven times and looked outside trying to find this woman and invite her in to chat.
Iona Bethea was the sweetest, most generous, God-fearing woman I know. I attribute every blessing and success I’ve reached in my life thus far to the strength of her prayers. It’s only right that I honor her heart in walking, donating, and voicing her stories! October 23rd, 2016 marks ten years since she left a gaping hole in our family. Please donate to Alzheimer’s research in hopes that no one else will have to experience this pain.