Alzheimer's Stinks

by Andrew Ingram on April 14th, 2013

   I have been writing professionally for about four years. As a journalist in the U.S. Army I’ve written about many terrible things. I’ve written stories about Iraqi troops turning their weapons on the American Soldiers they lived and trained with for months. I’ve written about how PTSD and traumatic brain injury can ruin good people's lives and tear families apart. I’ve written about suicide.  
   Whatever the subject matter, I have always been able to keep a level of professional detachment in my reporting. I was trained to report the facts and I’m pretty good at it.
Professional detachment is not something I am capable of when writing about Alzheimer’s disease. 
   My aunt Jill Francis recently founded Gracious Goodbyes, a nonprofit aimed at providing assistance to individuals and their loved ones confronted with progressive medical conditions. Last week she asked me to share a few words about my grandmother and her battle with Alzheimer’s over the past 11 years.
   As I said, I’m a journalist. Putting myself into a story is uncomfortable but I believe there is value in sharing the story of this incredible woman.
From the time I was born Jeannette Ingram played a huge role in my life. As is the case with many children of young parents, I spent a lot of my time at grandma and grandpa’s house while the folks worked.
   I remember when I was very young she worked, but I think around the time my younger brother and cousin were born, she became a full time grandma, watching all of us during the day as our parents started their professional lives.
Looking back, she was infinitely patient with a young boy with an overactive imagination.
When my dad got out of the army, we moved into his parent’s house for a while, and Grandma Ingram became my constant companion.
   She was my first playmate, and spent hours in the backyard enduring endless games of make believe with me.
   Grandma Ingram was kind, with a sharp sarcastic wit that never came across as superior or mean-spirited. When my cousins or I were down she was quick with a joke or an ice cream sandwich, both excellent tools for cheering up a sad kid.
When I was 5 my dad went back to college, and we moved away. For the next 5 years or so I would spend 3 seasons in school and most of the summer at Grandma and Grandpa Ingram’s.
   I remember by the end of 1st or 2nd grade, I had fallen way behind my classmates in reading, so over the summer Grandma broke out my dad’s old Hardy Boys books and made me read for an hour each day.  I hated it for the first few weeks, and then I loved it. The Hardy Boys had cool cars and got to fly in planes and solved mysteries.
By the time I returned to school, I was a couple of grades ahead of my classmates in reading comprehension. Now almost 20 years later, I’m a journalist. Grandma cultivated in me a love for the written word, and in the long run, is largely responsible for helping me find my calling as a writer.
            Three days before my 11th birthday my family moved to Quito, Ecuador, where my parents served as missionaries with HCJB Global and my brother and I attended school at Alliance Academy International.
            I saw less of my family back in the states after that. We would still visit during summers, and every couple of years someone would come out and see how the missionaries in the family lived, but it was never the same.
   We lived in Quito until I graduated high school in 2006.
   In 2002, doctors diagnosed my grandmother with with early onset Alzheimer’s. She was 63. I was 14.
I do not remember feeling the gravity of the situation then. Maybe I was in denial, maybe I lived too far away or maybe I was just a teenager, but I honestly didn’t notice a big change the first few times we visited after her diagnosis.
   She was still funny, still kind and would still chase her grandsons around the house for patting her on the head no matter how big they got. Sure, she might not have remembered my name all the time, but my mom calls me by my brother’s more often than not, so I didn’t really notice it.
   It wasn’t until I graduated from high school and stayed at my grandparent’s while saving for college that I really noticed the difference.
She talked in circles, telling the same Bill Cosby story over and over. Her wit would still appear in flashes, but she’d lost a step for sure. My grandfather did all of the housework.
   I’ve come to learn that it is hard for all young adults to watch the ones they love getting older, but it’s doubly hard to watch someone lose themselves to a disease like Alzheimer’s.
   My grandmother lives in a nursing home now. Her mind has forgotten how to walk, and she can no longer speak. She lies in bed and mumbles nonsensical syllables from lips that once spouted wisdom and wit in equal measure.
When I was younger, my grandmother’s disease made me sad. Over the past few years, that sadness has been supplemented with barbs of anger.
   My dad used to say his mother had the Red Phone to God; meaning when she prayed, amazing things happened. I’m angry because God in his infinite wisdom saw fit to let his servant suffer.
   My brother told me once that he couldn’t remember a time when grandma wasn’t sick. I’m angry because my brother should have known the sharp, wonderful woman who would spend hours indulging in a young boy’s fantasy world.
    Selfishly, I’m angry because one day the doctor may tell me that my brain is rotting, and over the course of a few years I will lose everything that makes me, me.
   I’m afraid if I do fall victim to this enemy, I will become a violent, cruel and spiteful person, a terror to those whom I love most. Alzheimer’s has done worse to better men than I.
But not to Jeannette Ingram.
   It is said that no man can know what is in the heart of another, but from day one, my grandmother faced this terrible burden with faith and grace. I’ve seen fear in her as she felt memories slipping away from her, but never bitterness, never spite.
Her grace and unwavering faith, even in the grips of this terrible disease, set an example of righteousness and humility for all of us to follow. I’m far from perfect, but her voice in the back of my head has kept me from making some huge mistakes in my life.
   During the early stages of her sickness, grandma would often joke, “I’ll outlive you all. I won’t know who I am, or where I am, but I’ll outlive you.”

Even now I still sort of believe it.

 Spc. Andrew Ingram, Camp Buehring, Kuwait

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Joel Francis - April 14th, 2013 at 8:46 PM
Here, Here. Magnificent.
Margie U - April 14th, 2013 at 9:08 PM
What a beautiful story of your relationship with my sweet friend Jeanette. I don't make the time to see her as often as I should but when I do go I always pray with her and try to pray for the things she would like to pray for if she could. I always pray for Andrew, Marcus, Jack, Joel, Nancy, Jeffrey, Jill, Tom and John. I'm so glad you had that wonderful time with her as a young boy.
Rachel Royle - April 14th, 2013 at 9:26 PM
Really appreciated reading this Andrew. I stayed with your Grandma briefly in 2001... and I got to know that remarkable woman a little too. Also appreciated lots of funny stories about your Dad and Aunt growing up! And tidbits on what to feed growing kids... :)

Jenny Harville - April 14th, 2013 at 9:58 PM
Thanks for bringing my memories of your grandma to light! I have not seen her in YEARS but as I read this article I could picture her and hear her wit just as you described!! Well said Andrew!!!
Mary Rose Rubin - April 15th, 2013 at 9:40 PM
Since I was a little girl I have always admired your grandmother! I was deeply saddened when I found out she had this terrible sickness years ago! I didn't understand how God could let that happen to her and your grandfather after all the good they had done in his name.

You won't remember me but I do remember you. Sounds like you turned out to be a great young man and a very talented writer! I hope your parents are well!
Michael Gooding - April 16th, 2013 at 8:55 AM
Andrew we have never met but we are family. I remember the last time Jeannette and John were back here in TN. Uncle James was sick so John and Jeannette came to visit along with other including Aunt Lorene and Aunt Mazelle and my mother (Anna). John brought Jeannette even though by that time she really didn't know anybody but she still displayed some of her wit but she did laugh alot that night. I remember Jeannette through the years, she is one of my moms favorites. When she came to visit she always had a camera, she must have thousands of pictures. I always joked with her about taking pictures all the time and she said I should see some of the ones she has of me when I was little. I mention Lorene and Mazelle because, you may or may not know that both have passed away from Alzheimers. It is a cruel disease I think it affects the ones who don't have more than the ones that do. We will be putting my mother in assisted living this summer as she is rapidly getting worse. It seems that for whatever reason our family has been greatly affected by this disease. I truly know how you feel.
Tonita Thompson - April 16th, 2013 at 8:28 PM
Guess what? I am another family member. My mother is Edna. You can ask Jill about me. I love Jeannette. I was truly shocked when she got this disease because of her always learning and had always heard that if you keep your mind sharp so not to get this, but that was not the case. As Michael Gooding wrote, our family has/had Alzheimers. I knew it was bad but it truly did not come to light until I stayed with Aunt Lorene in the hospital one night to let Dianne and Brinkley has some rest. This was close to the end of her time and it truly shocked me how things were. Jeannette is a great lady and I always enjoyed their visits. Thank you for writing this. It was so touching.

Tonita Thompson
Patricia - April 28th, 2013 at 3:59 PM

Well said! There aren't words to tell you how much Jeannette meant to me. I miss her so much! With her silence went a part of me. My big sister, my only sister, my friend!

Thanks for sharing these wonderful memories!

With Love,

"Auntie Pat"
Kimberly Hooper - May 4th, 2013 at 7:52 AM
I remember that same fun witty lady you do. My sisters & I would come for a visit & she would take us everywhere. I think she brought us to every historical site Virginia or Washington had to offer just to share with us her love of history. I do understand how it feels to see some one you love slip away. No matter how fast or even so slow you don't even realize it until you kind of wonder if you really missed your chance to say the things you needed to while they still even understood or recognized you. I saw it in both Grandma & Grandpa Elders & I can only believe that as bad as this illness is we have a compassionate God who would not leave such strong loving people trapped inside what is left. We see just a shell & they have already gone on without us. But you have to always remember that part of who she was is what has made you who you are today & that is something to be very VERY proud of!!!

I Love You Cuz,
Yvonne Fontenot - November 14th, 2013 at 1:13 PM

Your grandmother is a wonderful lady. When I first moved to Virginia, I had the honor of knowing John and Jeannette. Jeannette was a mighty prayer warrior. I struggled with infertilty for years, Jeannette prayed and counseled me and above all she loved me. In 2001, I took Jeannette to the church's nursery and I told her that our prayers were answered- I was pregnant. Today I have a beautiful son, Jon-Erik. She and John stood by me through my divorce and my son's diagnosis of autism. I think of her often and I pray that God heal her. Jeannette is a special person and she touched many lives. May God bless you and your family. Yvonne Fontenot, (formerly Hagans) Fort Belvoir, VA

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