From Issue 14: Here and Not

Andrew Walker

In photographs, my grandfather towers. Trimmed mustache under a bulbous nose, he stands hunched with a walking stick almost taller than he is. He smiles with his teeth. Always in shorts and a polo shirt, he looms over his wife, who looks small and distant. She wears a sweater and slacks—the smallest size still too big. A golden polar bear hangs around her neck, the nose always pointing to the left, toward her heart. The bear has been hanging there longer than I can remember—maybe longer than she can remember. She smiles only with her lips.

They have been married nearly fifty years and have never changed.

 

The Wind Crest Retirement Community is located in Highlands Ranch, Colorado, just off of County Line Road and Santa Fe Drive. The community opened in 2007 through Erikson Living, a company that currently has retirement communities across the United States. Wind Crest is the only Erikson Living Community in Colorado.

 

My grandfather has the amazing ability to mutate any conversation into one about himself. Like a magician, he can twist the topic, morphing it into his own show—a syntactical Houdini. He overpowers any conversation, no matter how strong, making sure he is not left out of others’ minds; standing tall at the end of dinner table discussions, others cast under his all-encompassing shadow.

 

I am sitting in my family’s living room after Easter dinner, college basketball is on in the background—I can only hear the squeaking of the players’ shoes over the speakers. My grandmother is doing dishes in the kitchen. My grandfather leans over toward me on the couch.

“You know who I saw today?” he says, propping himself up on vanity pillows. “Lindsay Cook. Oh my gosh, is she something. It’s a shame you ever got rid of her, Andrew.”

I don’t take my eyes off the screen. Not knowing what to say, I respond: “She certainly was cute.”

“Maybe you can send me her number,” he says, returning to his seat with a small grunt. I can only imagine he’s smiling at what he’ll later call a joke.

My grandmother—close enough to hear him—keeps quietly washing dishes.

 

My grandparents are always moving. In my 21 years, Bill and Jan Seefedlt have never been in the same place for more than four years. When I was a teenager, they floated around the RiverWalk Community, a cluster of nine developments just outside of Downtown Littleton. Although never in the same house/townhome/apartment, they hopped from development to development, getting to know their neighbors just well enough to wave hello on walks up and down the Platte River.

They were never static—even in the same place.

 

Dementia is a brain disease that eats away at the mind of its victim like maggots on rotting meat, making it more and more difficult for the victim to generate thought. Those with dementia will slowly lose their personality and memories. Their soul dying in a cage of a body, withering away until there is nothing left but a hallowed shell.

There is a possibility that doctors can slow this process, transforming every living moment with this disease into a more miserable and difficult existence for the victim, while making it easier on her loved ones—so they can hold on just a little bit longer; so they can pencil in the perfect time to mourn.

 

I am sitting at the kitchen table next to my younger brother: nine and six. My grandparents on both sides mingle in the other room, finding smiles in a mutual love for God and the Denver Broncos. Across from us sits my great grandmother on my father’s side. She is old. Oxygen tubes twist around her face, winding in and out of her nose, around her ears, down her shirt as if she’s only half human. As far back as I can remember, she has always been this way.

My brother and I are bickering about a video game when his hand whirls around, a half circumference, landing palm first in the center of my chest.

Breathless only for a moment, I punch him in the arm—enough to make him cry.

Rising from her seat, my great grandmother steadies herself on the table and screams: “You little retards will never learn how to be kind to one another!”

My brother and I run off into the other room, crying and apologizing, shocked that our great grandmother knows that word. Eventually our mother finds us and explains to us the disease that has taken hold of our great grandma Lucille, leading us back into the kitchen.

“Hi boys, she says, raspy and low. “It’s always good to see you.”

She does not smile.

 

Technically, Highlands Ranch isn’t a city or a town. It’s a census-designated place, meaning it’s a kind-of-suburb with its own name and land plot but not its own municipal government. CDPs are census-designated for the sole purpose of providing statistical data to the United States Census Bureau.

Highlands Ranch is just a place, floating in Douglas County, unhinged from the state—there only when it needs to be.

 

In May of 2014 while living in Sun Lakes, Arizona my grandmother was diagnosed with dementia. We had all seen it coming when she stopped cooking or driving or leaving the house without my grandfather. It came like a truck, seen too late in the rearview mirror—too afraid to pull over and let it pass until it barreled its way through, full speed ahead.

 

Wind Crest currently has a resident population of just under 1,000 between their five buildings. Each is connected by a sky bridge, like those found at a hospital. This is so the residents can walk the entire campus without stepping foot outside. Erikson Living plans to keep adding on to the large, desolate marsh-ish land the company owns in Highlands Ranch; adding building after building until they use up the entire plot. By the time the community is complete, Erikson Living projects a resident population of slightly over 3,000 senior citizens, making it—in theory—large enough to be its own, small town.

 

In between their floating around RiverWalk, my grandparents had a brief, two-year “I-think-we’ve-finally-found-our-place” stint in a gated living community in Chandler, Arizona.

I once visited them in middle school with my mother and brother. They took us to the mall and drove us around Chandler and Phoenix. We spent most of the time inside with the air conditioning on full blast. I had promised more visits upon my departure.

“Maybe next time you’re down here,” my grandfather said, nudging me, “I’ll let you drive the golf cart. You’ll definitely be able to pick up some cute high school chicks in that, huh?”

He smiled at me, two front teeth showing under his mustache, circular glasses sparkling in the Arizona sun. I could only stare at my feet.

 

70% of all dementia cases devolve into Alzheimer’s disease, which catalyzes the forgetfulness in a person’s mind. Eventually, the victim will forget anything and everything, starting with their short term memory. Alzheimer’s will strip away at the brain of a person until they are no longer able to function, shutting their brain down day by day until the victim forgets their friends and family—until they no longer remember why they can’t remember anymore.

 

My grandfather’s sister lived in the Libby Bortz Assisted Living Home in Downtown Littleton for roughly a month before liver failure struck her down in the bathroom. I was lying hung-over in my childhood bed when my parents came in to tell me that my Aunt Norma had been rushed to the hospital.

I visited once, with my brother and mother, to get lunch with my grandmother and grandfather. Upon finishing, my mother asked if my brother and I wanted to go and see my great aunt.

“That’s not a good idea,” my grandfather said, leaning into his walking stick—some of the light had gone out of his eyes. “She’s not the same person she was when the boys knew her. She wouldn’t want them to see her like this.”

We left the hospital. She died the next day.

 

In one of the dining centers at the Wind Crest Clubhouse (centrally located around the four other buildings) our waitress—a student from a nearby high school—moves behind my brother’s chair.

“Man oh man,” my grandfather says, putting his hand on my grandmother’s lap, “You checking these girls out? They certainly are something.”

He nudges me, as I stare into my food. I can only give a small, fake smile.

“Oh that’s right,” he continues. “You’re taken. You can still look and appreciate though, right?” His hand tightens on my grandmother’s lap as she stares blankly at her dry, overcooked chicken, unsure of how to go about eating it. “I mean, come on. How can you not?”

“This chicken is too dry,” my grandmother says, her voice is, like her, somehow smaller than it used to be. “Bill? Bill, the chicken is too dry.”

Like my grandfather, my smile remains. Like my grandmother, I can do nothing but stare at my half-empty plate.

 

Before my grandmother was professionally diagnosed with dementia, my grandfather had decided that it would be best for them if they moved back to Arizona.

“I just think it would be better for Jan,” he tells my mother over the phone. “Besides I miss it there. We miss it there.”

They moved back to a retirement community in Sun Lakes, Arizona, a CDP just outside of Chandler.

A year and a half later, they had submitted their application to become residents at Wind Crest Retirement Community in Highlands Ranch, Colorado, known and renowned for their Alzheimer’s care facility. “So we can be closer to our family,” my grandfather would say. “It’s where we want to be.”

 

My brother and I were sitting in the car of a Highlands Ranch Tattered Cover when my father got the call that his grandmother—our great grandmother—had died from Alzheimer’s.

Overhearing bits and phrases from the conversation and putting it in context, I was crying before he even broke the news.

 

Although they understand that there is a possibility of it being passed down genetically, doctors are still unsure of what causes dementia. There is no cure.

 

My grandfather’s right front tooth is false. When we were younger, my brother and I would watch him make it disappear and reappear with a simple sneeze. One minute he would have a full, bright smile, the next thing we knew, the tooth would be gone—but not really. Just hidden, somewhere in the back of his mouth. Maybe it was under his tongue.

 

There will come a time, later in my life, where my mother and father may contract Alzheimer’s disease. It has built itself up around our family, within each member, only to tear them down one by one. Hiding in our DNA, it is passed down like an heirloom. One day, it may come for me and I will forget where I live, who I love and that I am slowly dying.

Forgetting is part of my heritage.

 

Our kitchen is quiet. Large flower arrangements litter the house where my mother’s half of the family sits in formal wear. Eyes are red and sore, everyone seems tired and worn. My mother is wearing a polar bear necklace, the nose pointing toward her heart.

“Well, I think it’s about time for me to get going,” my grandfather says, standing, using his walking stick as leverage. I give him what seems like the hundredth hug of the day. He keeps his hand on my shoulder and leans into me.

“Off I go to my lonely house,” he jokes quietly in my ear. “Maybe I should have someone send some people over, keep me company.” He looks at me knowingly.

I suck on my teeth and walk away, making eye contact with my father, the only other person in the room who heard him. He shakes his head and looks at the ground, giving off a heavy sigh.

I slide the tie from around my neck and leave the room.

The last line on the Wind Crest website reads: “You will be most happy living at Wind Crest.”

 

Alzheimer’s took my grandmother down softly, in her sleep like a lullaby.

She did not know where she was when she died. She forgot the faces of those who surrounded her—seeing nurses as strangers and family stranger still. She grew smaller and smaller until the last day, unrecognizable from the photo that sat in the frame on the bedside table of her hospice room. Forgetting even her own death, she became a husk of who she once was in a bed in the hospice wing of the Wind Crest retirement community.

Here—but not really.

We are sitting around a dining table in Wind Crest once again. The waitress has just set our food on top of our napkins, folded into Christmas trees. My grandmother, a shell of a woman no longer there, stares through her plate at some fast approaching future.

“Dad,” my mother says, pulling and unfolding her napkin. “Would you say grace?”
We fold our hands and I stare through at my plate, eyes unclosed. My grandfather thanks God for the meal, our family, my brother’s successful first semester in college, my exciting journey into my last. He thanks God for my mother and father being at this table with him, with Jan. He thanks God for the strangely warm weather we’ve been having and hopes for more in the future. He asks God to watch over his sister in heaven and to help him and Jan through the next and last phase of her treatment. He begins to cry and my mind goes elsewhere, finding a fear for the future.

I wonder if I’ll remember this day, if it’s something I’ll carry with me to my death. Or if it’s just another point in time that will soon fade from memory, leaving nothing—not even an outline—in its place.

Wiping the tears from his cheeks, he looks at the table, at his wife and daughter, his grandchildren. “Let’s eat,” he says, attempting the shadow of a smile.

 

Andrew Walker graduated from Colorado State University with a degree in English. He has been previously published in the Yellow Chair Review. He currently lives in Austin, Texas.