Running, Dementia, my Angel

Something happens when you are about to turn 35. You start doing the math and realizing that you are half of seventy, but not quite at mid-life. For me, I started looking at my Grandmother, Olive Fern Humphreys. I realized that for most of her life Gram, as we grandkids affectionately called her, had never exercised, and that she did indeed enjoy all things sugar. I could relate. Being naturally thin, there really seemed no logical reason to spend hours sweating away while I could instead be eating my favorite treats. This was my thinking until the day she was diagnosed with dementia. This was the day that changed all my days. The day that turned me to running. Research shows that even mild exercise helps to counter dementia, and that is exactly what I intended to do counter the monster that scares me most, dementia. It robs recent memories, makes faces turn to clouds and sends laugher away. According to the Alzheimer’s Disease Facts and Figures in 2010, 5.3 million people have a form of dementia. November is National Alzheimer’s Disease Awareness Month, and so, this month, I take a look back over the past two plus years and recallmy new dedication to saving my health by lacing up my shoes. The following entries are my personal account of finding my strength, while losing my Gram, who after a challenging battle with dementia, became my Angel.

Saturday, March 29, 2008: “I started out slowly, very slowly, and am sure the cars passing me thought I was walking. After only a half a mile I wanted to quit. I should have bought some new shoes, the kind made just for running. My hips ached and my heels hurt. I cant believe people actually like running. I slowed down even more until my body hardly moved. I got home forty minutes later and collapsed on the couch glad that this first attempt at running is over.”

Saturday, May 10, 2008: “Today was my first 5K, the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure in Salt Lake City. I had been training for this day for weeks, and knew that it would be a hard run. My lungs burned. My heart was on fire. My feet felt so heavy. Regardless, I was overcome with emotion as I ran, and could feel my body laughing like a kid at Christmas.”

Tuesday, September 30, 2008: “I am scared. I want to visit her, but I am scared. Scared that she will forget me. Scared that she will not know my name. Scared that she will ask where Grandpa is and I will not be able to hold back my tears that somehow creep in each time I think of him. Scared that those memories will be replaced by questions, asked over and over again. Of someone who is unsure where they are and who surrounds them. Someday will find you in a sweeter place, Gram.

“I wonder sometimes after all of these years of living with a different kind of pain, after surviving cancer, and working so hard for her family, that she was challenged with one of the most difficult conditions for both family and self, that of dementia.”

Sunday, November 30, 2008: “Tonight is the last night my Grandma will be in her own home. We are moving her to an assisted care facility that specializes in dementia. The shadows in her head are just ghosts of her memories. I can see her wanting to remember, trying to understand, and then just somehow … not. When my sisters Jeannie and Tami and I left her house on Thanksgiving after a short visit, I only wanted one thing … and that was for her to say my name. But it didn’t happen. It took a lot for me to not cry. I was so glad to take this one last visit on Thanksgiving Day with my two sisters, whom I love larger than life. dementia is not my friend. I miss my Gram.”

Saturday, April 4, 2009: “Today I ran nine miles. In the cold. I layer up first with my two favorite running jackets, and then my Nike pants that do not even let me feel the cold. I clip my iPod on, strap my GPS watch around my wrist, pull my beanie down tight, put on my gloves, tie my shoes, grab a water bottle, and hit the road. Some mornings, I have to be honest; I just really would rather not be a runner. However, I set a goal, and a goal is what I intend to reach. I have six more weeks of training until the half marathon, and then all of this hard work will pay off. I don’t care about speed. I only want to cross the finish line without crying, tripping, or throwing up.”

Monday, May 4, 2009: “One year ago in an effort to thwart the possibility of one day having dementia I decided to start exercising in the form of running. At the time, I could not even run a half mile before I had to stop … and now one year later I am nearly ready for my ultimate goal of running a half marathon. It has been a lonely process, filled mostly with the thoughts in my head, my music, shoes that I love, and lots and lots of footsteps … most of them being in the rain or freezing cold. Sometimes I think we don’t know what we are capable of accomplishing. I am not athletic. Somehow though, I find myself on these long training runs, just me and my legs, and I feel great. I push that last few meters usually in the quiet of the early morning all by myself … and then, just like a crowd of people are cheering for me as I cross the line … I pump my fists in the air and finish like a champ.”

Wednesday, May 13 2009: “Gram’s engine is shutting down. There is no sound. The tracks don’t bend. This old train … is breaking down. I don’t want to let her go. So I keep on rolling. But this old train…is breaking down. I need this old train. She can’t stop now. Breakdown. ‘You can’t stop nothing if you got no control,’ Jack Johnson says. No more control. No more connecting. Breakdown. Let go. Breakdown. Let go. Breakdown. Let go.”

Friday, May 15, 2009: “Sad doesn’t know that it was her time to go. That her mind was in pain. That she could not take another breath. Sad just knows how much I will miss her. How much I love her.”

Saturday, May 16, 2009: “Today, in the earliest hours of the morning, armed with a sharpie tattoo Running for Grandma I ran 13.1 miles in the Ogden Utah Half Marathon. One of the greatest days of my life. I dont think the morning rays have ever been so peaceful, or my feet ever so light. I cant remember a time when I was filled with so much hope or love for complete strangers. When one of these strangers saw the writing on my arm he yelled, ‘WHOS GRANDMA??’ I told him that just two days ago my Gram had passed away from dementia and that I was not sure I could run this half marathon that I had been training for so many months for. He shouted back encouragement and raised his hands in the air shouting to the other runners, SHES RUNNING FOR GRAM!!! It is true. Very few days will ever compare to this day.”

Thursday, May 13, 2010: “A year ago to this day I stopped by to see my sweet Gram who was falling fast from this life, and I chose to work, laptop open, instead of hold her hand and sitting by her side. I think at the time I thought that there would be another chance. There is always another chance. So I worked. There is a part of me that does not like change, and on this day, one year ago … I saw my Gram change. No longer was there any bit of a smile. No longer was there any animation. There were just the last bits of life hanging on with a sense of the end. Still, I worked on. I stayed with her until she went to bed. Saw the sweet nurses tuck her in, and tell her that they loved her. I saw them kiss her forehead and tell her to sleep. It was so easy for them. So, so easy. When they left I had the opportunity to reach down and hold my Gram’s warm hand and tell her how much I loved her, right before she fell asleep. But I couldn’t do it. I shut down my laptop, and said ‘Goodnight Gram…’ and took my things and drove back home.”

“All night I thought about her a year ago, and made the resolution to stop by first thing in the morning and make it right. I drove straight to the care facility, and quickly got out and made my way upstairs to her room. It was breakfast time, so if she wasn’t in her room, she would be eating with the group. I passed a young nurse getting off the elevator, she smiled at me. It was a perfect day, the sun was just starting to come out and the morning was calm. I found Gram’s room and put my fingers around the knob to open the door. But it was locked. I do have an angel. She was there with me at that moment. The moment I knew that I was too late. The nurse who answered the door to my Gram’s room said that I had just missed her slipping off to heaven and that I would need to wait out in the hallway for my family to arrive. I wonder if I have ever cried so hard, as I sunk to the floor, hugged my knees, and felt sorrow so deep that it bruised my heart. For several minutes it was just me, the hallway, and a box of Kleenex. I missed her so bad. I still do. I miss her on nice days like today, when the sun is just coming up. She always liked a sunny day.

Thursday, November 11, 2010: “The hour before the morning light first appeared and while the stars were fading, I laced up my new shoes and went for a run. The air was cold, and my face felt the burn of wind signalling winter close at hand. My ears heard the repetitive sound of my feet hitting the road, but my mind was still, only thinking of my Grandma.

“So, today I say to my Gram, ‘I am so sorry I did not stay. I know that you never liked to be alone. So sorry. I love you … and miss you … and I will always remember you. I still honk at your house when I drive by; I still can’t pour a bowl of Lucky Charms without thinking of you … I still am grateful so often for the memories of sleepovers and getting tucked in to the hide-a-bed with the red afghan.’

“Somewhere in heaven there is a spring day. There are new tomato plants, and tiny buds on peach trees, there are bright tulips and brilliant new green grass. There are sunsets that would take your breath away, and sunrises to live for. And somewhere there is my angel Gram, waiting to cheer me on in the next big race.”

Amy Wilde is a writer living in Brigham City, Utah. You can follow her blog at amywildeatmosphere.blogspot.com, or email her at wilde.amy@gmail.com.

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