Somehow, she never looks any older. Every time I come to visit, once or twice a year, she greets me at the door. She almost always wears a red sweater, reminding my father and me that “red is her color.” As soon as I entered the door to her home in St. Louis this winter break, we eased back into a routine with conversations last spoken. Talk, food, talking after food, hands resting on the tablecloth.
We sat at her table, idly discussing our Greek and Albanian ancestry. We wandered through our family tree as she talked about her parents: how her father had slipped out of Albania as war engulfed the Balkans and made his way to the United States. She inspired me with tales of generations of women, all keenly fascinated with science and medicine. She regaled me with stories of these same women working their way into the fabric of St. Louis’ orthodox churches. Our family would later open a restaurant, the Black Cat, a riff on our last name, Mavromatis, meaning “black eyes.”
I’ve always loved the sound of my grandmother’s voice. The way it lilts as she explains the family news with a buoyant lyricism. The subtle creak in her voice when she becomes emotional. The brightness of her laugh.
Our heritage is best seen in our terminology. I call her YiaYia—“grandmother” in Greek—and my grandfather Papou. There was one recent loss in our family which, for all its devastation, was not a shocking one. My YiaYia watched as her brother, Gregory, began to lose his memory. He knew she was his sister and that he loved her, but nothing more.
“And, I’m sure your father has told you,” she continued, smoothing her hands over the tablecloth, “that I have Alzheimer’s.”
The irony of her proclamation would only strike me later: She had not spoken a word of the diagnosis to my father. It seems as though she had forgotten to mention it.
I had known before then, however, that her memory had already been fading.
Three months into last semester, more than a month before she mentioned the diagnosis and just preceding the presidential election, I felt the urge to call my YiaYia on one of my many weekend walks. She picked up the phone quickly, and our conversation made it clear that she knew with great certainty the significance of the upcoming Tuesday. I walked through Central Park, trying to indirectly discover the way she voted. Born and raised in St. Louis, she leans conservative, and her Orthodox Christianity drives her political decisions. She spoke solemnly about the issues at hand, ensuring I knew her concern for my generation.
“And—so where are you again? When does school start?” she asked, although she should have known school had started months ago. Each moment she forgot, the knot in my stomach tightened. “I’m in college right now, YiaYia,” I responded. Even to myself, my voice sounded falsely cheerful.
A pause. “Oh! Oh. Right.”
After this walk, I cast the incident out of my mind. In the wake of a shocking election and the steady increase of work, it was almost too easy to focus only on the immediate.
I am no stranger to YiaYia’s health concerns. Her first health scare occurred far before I was born, when, in her 50s, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Back then, she told me, her fear stemmed from the fact that her own grandmother had died from the same cancer. Worried that genetics would predispose me, she encouraged me to undergo tests. Genetic testing would reveal predispositions of all kinds—maybe, even, a concrete genetic link to memory loss.
Alzheimer’s research is still very new, and, as such, there’s no way to predict whether someone will have it. There is a genetic component, but whether that component is an absolute indicator is unclear. For most, symptoms appear when patients are in their sixties and are sometimes undetected, as they were with YiaYia. After all, who doesn’t forget their keys every once in a while?
Even upon diagnosis, there are only a few options for treatment. Some drugs have been shown to hinder the progression of memory loss, but unlike the breast cancer that once frightened my family, Alzheimer’s has no clinically proven treatment program. For now, YiaYia is on the latest medicines. Doctors say they will slow the forgetting.
And so in many ways, when she told me of her diagnosis at her home during winter break, it was a confirmation of my suspicions. Her admission sent me reeling. My mind jumped, obsessively, from incident to incident: what she’d remembered, what she had not. Each moment I treasured with her would one day no longer be shared. I alone would hold those memories.
After she told me about her diagnosis, I began to take photos of her. I spent the remainder of the trip studying her. Capturing, in my mind and on film, the way she moved, the way she laughed. I downloaded the StoryCorps app onto my phone, creating a series of interview questions not unlike what I would do for Spectator. I felt overwhelmed—I wanted to know everything about her, to preserve our histories. I was unwilling to let the stories of our Albanian origins fade.
Helplessness overtook anxiety, and as my father and I drove back home to Chicago from St. Louis, I found myself gritting my teeth, pushing back waves of emotion as I looked over the fields of corn. The signs and boards high above us nearly brought me to tears—the Hail Mary, every letter capitalized: “BLESSED ART THOU AMONG WOMEN.”
On an intellectual level, I know that death is an inescapable event. But I had always taken for granted that living in oblivion was easily avoided. Knowledge was forever, I believed. Your history, your past—that couldn’t be taken from you, could it? At an Ivy League institution where learning is a treasure and knowledge a prized social currency, the fear of forgetting is ever implicit, even amplified. College is a place to gain the tools to confront any challenge.
Here at Columbia, we take our knowledge for granted in a way. We’re affirmed on the basis of our smarts, a dedicated group of students doggedly devouring the information in our paths. We spend long hours in libraries, committing to memory each new lecture or reading.
Inevitably, so many of us feel defined by that knowledge. We push ourselves day in and day out to discover details. We work in labs, we write theses. Our GPA is the axis upon which our lives revolve, an assessment—however flawed—of what we know, what we remember.
Yet how to confront my own mind’s fragilities? I see my father’s brief memory lapses and cannot help but fear for him. Despite the mental agility my youth grants me, I cannot guarantee I will not, one day, begin to forget too. If I live in fear of forgetting, my drive for knowledge will be overshadowed by a desperate need to remember for remembrance’s sake.
These thoughts of my grandmother are never far from my mind. I am a thousand miles from that dining room table, but with the grace of cell phones, I can walk with her down Central Park. I am no historian, but I will do my best to archive these moments: the names and the stories of her family. Who we were in Europe; who we’ve become. In our discussions, we pass the histories from one to another. If she cannot remember them, then maybe I can.
We all learn for different reasons. Some of us learn to bolster our grades, perhaps preparing for medical or law school. Some of us learn for the sheer curiosity, that rush of joy when the pieces click together and an academic mystery is made understandable. Now, I notice a third class, a class I am becoming a part of—those who learn to cope. Those who sense a problem in their family, or their community, or their world, and must throw themselves into their learning in order to process their concerns. Most of them aren’t strictly learning to cope-—there is a mix of the other grade and passion based motives, of course, but hesitation and anxiety there, too.
I came to college committed to studying chemistry and chemistry alone. Naïvely, I looked at these four years as a launching ground. Perhaps, next, a Ph.D. A career in pharmacy.
Now my thoughts are changing. With the encouragement of my roommate, I’ve begun exploring the neuroscience and behavior program. Professors heading the program speak of their research, appearing confident, self-assured, proud. They know the brain. They control it. Tantalizing is the promise of knowing what ails her, what one day may ail me.
For much of my life, I have found solace in understanding. Alzheimer’s is always going to be a frightening word to hear. Maybe I will fear it less the more I understand it. Helplessness is not inevitable here. The more I know, the more good I may be able to do.
On my last walk, I paused to tie my unraveling laces. I leaned against a street lamp, my eyes flitting to the various flyers that adorned it. Displayed there: the word “MISSING” in bold capital letters, accompanied by the image of an elderly woman from Morningside Heights. Her face smiled at me from the paper. My eyes stung. I picked up my phone and dialed.
“Hey YiaYia. How are you?”
Her voice flooded out of the speakers, and we wrote the next chapter of our histories, together.
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