The Fleeting Seconds of Forever

Written By: Jillian  Hand

A three-year-old girl’s tiny hand was encapsulated in the guided grip of a fragile old man beside her. They slowly walked down an old, rustic boardwalk behind Rough Riders condominiums in Montauk New York, the tranquil atmosphere completely enamored them. A carefree smile caressed the child’s lips when she gazed upwards at the soft features of the man’s gentle face– a simple memory that would be etched into her mind forever. For the old man, however, the concept of ‘forever’ was near its death. In fact, the memory would most likely vanish within minutes, just like the sun which was being swallowed by the ocean in the near distance.

Grandpa Sam stared at the picture with a cloudy haze fogging his marble blue eyes. He could not decipher where the photograph was taken or who the people were. His frosted colored eyebrows furrowed tightly when he tried to further study the faces of the subjects and their surroundings. He could not recognize the narrow boardwalk leading to the gazebo, nor the brown haired little girl who held the hand of a man in a navy blue Yankee cap.

To this day, I still glance at the photo of my Grandpa Sam and me walking down that narrow Montauk boardwalk–the boardwalk where we’d spend every summer of my childhood– and instantly drown in a wave of nostalgia. I try to ignore the prickling pain behind my eyes where salty tears threaten to fall. It’s excruciating to know that when my Grandpa looked back at these family pictures, he never recognized them. His house was filled with frames of unfamiliar faces. Although the pictures held no meaning for him, they meant absolutely everything to me.

The three-year-old girl was now six. She found herself in their  Montauk summer condo carefully studying the older man, whose wrinkles had only carved deeper into his weathered skin. He stood in front of a full length mirror gazing perplexedly at his teary eyed reflection.

Grandpa Sam waved politely as the kind gentleman returned the gesture at the exact same time and decided to initiate a conversation. “Hi. How are you?” Sam watched as the elderly man’s lips moved, but he could only hear his own raspy voice. He was completely innocent of the fact that the man he was looking at was himself.

I thought he was crazy. I was only six-years-old and simply couldn’t understand why Grandpa was talking to himself in a mirror.

The puzzled girl was around seven-years-old when she realized the immensity of the problem. Her eyes widened with worry when the elderly man started to call her by her older sister’s name.

“Jennifer, come here.” Her Grandpa called out with desperation.

“Jennifer!” He cried loudly again. The girl had looked up from her drawing and found his piercing blue eyes fixed on her. “Come here.” He begged.

“Grandpa, I’m not Jennifer. My name is Jillian.” She explained in a short huff.

Grandpa Sam flushed with anger. He had called out several times and didn’t understand why he was being ignored.

At only seven-years-old, I grew extremely frustrated. Thoughts echoed endlessly through my mind, “Why couldn’t Grandpa remember my name? Did he not know who I was?” I was confused, and quite frankly, hurt. I tentatively walked over to him and detected a glazed look shining through his deserted eyes. It seemed as if he had disappeared from his own body, lost in another world. Seeing that he was reading the newspaper upside down,  I began to panic.

“Mom!” A shrill scream escaped my dry throat. “Something’s wrong with Grandpa!”

Barreling in from the kitchen, my mom froze when she found me standing next to my Grandpa who attempted to read the upside down words on the paper.

That day I learned Grandpa had Alzheimer’s disease.

“Is Grandpa going to die?” I asked my mom as a slow tear dripped down my pale cheek.

“Well no, not right now. Grandpa just has a hard time remembering some things,” she explained softly. “He probably won’t get his memory back, so you have to be patient, but he loves you no matter what, okay?”

I nodded my head quietly as my mind tried to process the news. As each second became a part of history, his memories began to deteriorate.  Soon, seconds turned into days, days became months, and months turned into years. As each year progressed, another year was forgotten.

The seven-year-old-girl was now eight. She gained another year of collecting moments, as her Grandfather lost yet another year of his life. Regardless, she had looked forward to her summer visits to Montauk with her grandparents where she made most of her childhood memories.

Grandpa Sam sat slumped over in a wooden chair watching as the girl next to him, yet again, explained how to play the card game. “What do I do with this one?” He questioned nervously. The jagged lines between his eyebrows crinkled together in confusion.

I didn’t mind repeating the rules of Go Fish, even though I knew he’d forget, it no longer fazed me. I knew Grandpa would forget the times we spent together, so I made sure to remember even the most intricate details. I still remember the salty smell which hung loosely in the summer air, mixed with the potency of seaweed. I still remember the prominent lines engraved around his smile, his hearty chuckle whenever I’d make up a fictional story to entertain him. Now that I was aware of Grandpa’s Alzheimer’s disease, it made my relationship with him unbreakable.  Not only was Alzheimer’s responsible for creating a rich bond between us, but it also taught me to look at life with a finer focus for the fear of forgetting even the smallest memories. I was adamant about not letting Alzheimer’s destroy anything else. After watching Grandpa struggle for so long, I began to think how I would feel if I suddenly woke up and couldn’t remember what I did the day before. The thought utterly terrified me. Grandpa was stronger than I could ever be, but sometimes I wondered if he really understood what was happening to him. I know that he would get frustrated if he watched us grow impatient with him, but I don’t know if he actually realized the immensity of his memory loss. Since I witnessed the shrinking of Grandpa’s memory, I know I’ll forever pay more attention to my surroundings and attempt to ingest the sometimes overlooked details in life.

It was the summer when the girl had turned nine-years-old that her life had changed forever. Her Grandpa flew from Florida to New York, so he could stay with her family while his wife was hospitalized for two weeks. Confusion moved permanently into his mind, evicting more memories in the process. The girl had quickly learned the importance of not only having patience but also, having empathy.

Grandpa Sam paced fretfully along the hardwood floors. “Where’s Dottie?” He asked nearly every seven minutes as he searched hopelessly for his wife. “Where am I?” He thought aloud while wandering aimlessly around the unknown house, questioning nearly everything. At night he’d wake in a foreign bed, and scream with fright. “Where’s Dottie?” He crept through his strange surroundings in search for a sense of normality. “Where am I?”

Grandpa was worse than I had ever seen him. My patience was fraying, but never once did it snap. Through it all, I had remained by his side explaining what happened to Grandma in a calm manner. Frustration would not help, in fact, it would only make matters worse. Instead, I’d sit with him every morning as he drank his coffee, and I read him the newspaper. Whenever I teetered on the edge of frustration, I’d remind myself how it would feel if I was the one who could no longer remember. Once again, questions harassed my mind: How would I feel if I was the one who felt terrified about my surroundings? What if I woke up and could no longer recognize my family members? Who would I be without my memory? Grandpa may have forgotten my name, but it no longer affected me. Simply spending time with him was what mattered most.

Now the girl is eighteen and her Grandpa unfortunately passed away but she will forever be grateful for their time shared together. She will forever cherish the dinners at Gosman’s Dock, and the times that her Grandpa would teach her how to bait a hook. She’ll forever remember watching the sunset from their patio or finding seashells on the shore. Alzheimer’s may have taken her Grandpa’s memories, but Montauk is responsible for providing her with lifelong bond that can never be broken.