Losing Someone, One Memory at a Time

Last week, the world lost Willard Scott, a weather man and television personality best known for his sense of humor, his kind persona, and, of course, his Smucker’s jars. As I was watching the tributes after his death, it struck me just how strange it is that the people we love are here . . . and then they’re not. Just like that. In a matter of days, minutes, even seconds sometimes, everything changes.

The death of Willard Scott also got me thinking about one funny, friendly guy I knew very well. I knew him from watching him play with Matchbox cars on the floor with my children, his grandsons. I knew him from helping him collect quarters representing all fifty states and from listening to his detailed stories of growing up in the hills of West Virginia and serving in Vietnam. And, although his body failed quickly when he contracted Covid in the fall of 2020, I was reminded how Alzheimer’s disease had stolen him from us slowly over a decade, like a thief who empties your jewelry box by silently slinking off with one precious gold chain or gemstone at a time.

Until there is an empty box.

It takes you a while to notice that those precious things are missing when they are stolen so slowly. And once you do, it’s impossible to retrieve – or even fully understand – the extent of what you’ve lost.

Because it’s not just about the jewelry or the memories that are missing. It’s about the thief’s betrayal, the hurt, the anger. It’s the fact that an enemy has infiltrated your borders and you, always on guard, weren’t even aware of it.

Your safe zone is no longer predictable.

Your safe zone no longer feels safe.

I remember when we first noticed the repetition. The questions that were asked not long after they had been answered. The stories that, although they had always been favorites, now played in a loop in his dialogue. I remember the dread that we felt. Could it be? No, surely it wasn’t. Not him. Not now. Not yet.

Just look at him! He is healthy and strong!

I remember the sadness of his wife, my mother-in-law. The long, slow, painful grief. The mourning of each new task he could not do on his own. The physical and emotional exhaustion she felt when she knew that he needed her help but wanted desperately to maintain his sense of dignity and independence.

I remember the conversations about the car and his beloved old blue truck. Should he drive here? Should he drive there? Should he drive anywhere? How do we tell him that we are no longer comfortable with him driving his grandchildren? Who is going to tell the protector, the man who owns the keys, the guy who always sat in the driver’s seat, that he is going to ride shotgun from this day on?

I remember the time on vacation when I knew how much I didn’t know about caring for someone with Alzheimer’s. When my mother-in-law had no choice but to send him into a men’s restroom alone because a grown adult man isn’t welcome in the women’s restroom. But he shouldn’t have been alone in there. We paced the sidewalk nervously until he returned to us safely, and I realized that this was just five minutes of the war that the two of them were battling every day. And my heart hurt deeply, knowing I felt only a fraction of her pain.

I remember the weeks when the care-taking was becoming too intense for one woman without a team of medical professionals down the hall. The choices. The love and the guilt and the grief.

The toll it took on a family.

I remember it all.

But I also remember what an amazing life my father-in-law had lived before Alzheimer’s, what a playful grandfather he was, and what a kind spirit he had. Alzheimer’s steals so much of the present and the future. But we are fortunate that, at least for the family of a person with Alzheimer’s, it cannot steal the past.

When my father-in-law, Keith, traded his shoes for metaphorical wings, our family was heartbroken, not only because of the physical loss of such a wonderful human, but also because we had a new enemy. Keith had died from Covid, and the entire world was on pause because of the virus. Vaccines weren’t yet available, travel was still discouraged, and large gatherings were prohibited. Around the same time that we lost my father-in-law, a friend had experienced multiple losses in her own family, so the prospect of inadvertently exposing grandma to Covid while grieving the loss of grandpa was just too much for me. Mourning together is supposed to be healing, but there was a reasonable risk before vaccinations that mourning together could have been deadly.

Even though I felt this was the right decision, I was sick with guilt. How could we honor the richness of a grandparent’s life and love without being with our family to grieve for him?

Alzheimer’s had stolen my father-in-law’s memory, but Covid wasn’t going to steal his legacy.

We were fortunate that our family made a special effort to live-stream the funeral service so that we could, at least, all be together in spirit. The boys and I devoted the rest of the day to remembering their “Pappy Ware” by doing things that reminded us of what he loved. It turned out to be really special, so let me share who he was with you through our plans that day.

One of Keith’s earliest jobs was in a bakery. He reveled in sharing those memories with us, describing how shiny and clean he would keep that place despite every surface being dusted with flour and sugar on the regular. I always imagined him smiling while he worked. And I imagined that it was really hot in there, but that it probably smelled delicious – you know, like warm donuts. We researched to find an old-fashioned donut shop like where he would have worked, and we landed on The Original Goodie Shop in Upper Arlington. We picked out our donuts together, ate them together, shared memories together.

Keith grew up in the country – and I mean IN THE COUNTRY, the kind of country where windy roads snake deep into the hollows and the mountains of West Virginia. Although he didn’t return there often, he weaved stories about his childhood there with his sisters and and his brothers, about times when he got himself into mischief, and about his mother teaching in a one-room schoolhouse. I don’t remember all the details, but I recall one story about a little toy horse that he shared many times. He enjoyed hunting and watching shows about the outdoors. We felt like we needed to spend some time in the woods that day, so we visited Highbanks and took this beautiful photo on our drive. We agreed he would have liked it there.

After our donuts and some time in the woods, we joined our family for the funeral service. After the service, my boys released balloons in Keith’s honor, just like their cousins were doing 130 miles away.

Keith’s favorite cookies were oatmeal raisin. We thought a fun, meaningful way to share his love for others would be to bake his favorite cookies and then share them with some friends. So we did, and I used molasses in a recipe for the very first time. We packed them into baggies and small plastic containers and distributed them, explaining to friends that this was an extra special delivery. I have baked these once or twice since the day of Keith’s funeral, but it seems like there was an extra magical ingredient in them when we made them that particular day.

Of course, we looked through photographs, and we watched a video created from photos that everyone in the family had shared. Keith was a kind, loving grandpa with a gentle spirit and a strong bear hug. He especially enjoyed when the grandkids were young!

Many of my memories of Keith come from sitting around the table with his family. He always sat at the head of the table, and we all enjoyed many meals and holidays together. Keith enjoyed a down-home, comfort-food kind of meal. Although I don’t remember him eating lemon ice cream, he was always grateful for a lemon cookie or a lemon bar. We made a home cooked meal we thought he would enjoy, with a lemon dessert in his honor.

Christmas ornaments, to me, are little treasure chests bursting with memories. In my imagination, my kids will want my ornaments someday when I am gone, despite the fact that they are probably only worth some spare change at a yard sale. They know how much I love them. We added a special ornament to our tree in memory of their grandpa and his love of hunting and the outdoors.

I don’t know if my father-in-law ever watched Good Morning Vietnam or if he would even approve of it, but he served in Vietnam, and he talked about it a lot throughout his life, especially during his final years when his memory was constantly rewinding to his teens and twenties. Watching this seemed like a way to share a cultural touchstone with them while also helping them “see” a bit of his experiences. It wasn’t as engaging as I remembered, but I think it still mattered in the big picture of our day.

Throughout the day of the funeral, I shared pictures of our adventures with Carol, my boys’ grandma, so that she would know that we were honoring Keith’s life with her. At the end of the day, I felt like we had connected with his memory in a way that I hadn’t experienced before. In some ways, it felt MORE meaningful than the traditional ways that we mourn people. But we missed being with our people. We missed their hugs the most.

My incredibly generous friend in Marietta, Sarah Sauls, spearheaded a community memorial months later in honor of the lives lost during Covid. It was an opportunity to mourn and to gather. It was a chance to be present with Carol in the celebration of Keith’s life.

We placed flowers in Keith’s honor into a wreath. Then the beautiful wreath, decorated with memories, was set afloat in the river.

It was a moving tribute.

We watched the flowers and the wreath float away from us, just as Keith’s memories had floated away over the past decade due to Alzheimer’s.

Next weekend, “Keith’s Squadron” will walk in southeastern Ohio to raise money for Alzheimer’s research. It is so special that the team, including my sister-in-law, nephews, and others we love, will walk in Keith’s honor this year. Alzheimer’s is a terrible disease that has likely touched us all in some way. The boys and I would love for you to help raise money for their grandpa’s team by clicking on this link. Please help. Maybe, just maybe, we can prevent future generations, including ourselves, from floating away, one memory at a time.

Lots of love to you all! Thanks for devoting a few minutes of your day to honor Keith, and thanks for supporting such an important cause if you can. Alzheimer’s is a horrible way to lose someone you love. ❤