Essays

The Memory Queen

When Alzheimer's took my grandfather's memory, I started writing a fairy tale to make sense of our loss. But dementia cannot be defeated like a fairy tale queen.

Down the street from my grandparents’ condo in Hawaii, there used to be a nightclub with a cardboard-looking mural in front of it, depicting a woman snorkeling.

My family and I used to joke that the woman was my grandma. There was something about their similar stern, narrowed eyes, head of dark hair, and flawless light skin, despite the Oahu heat, that made the snorkeler’s face familiar. I had never seen my grandma swimming, and I had never so much as seen my grandpa in a pair of swimming trunks. But that mural was still a significant landmark, probably because trips to my grandparents’ place at that very young age usually meant that we would take a swim in their pool.

If we went to visit on a Sunday, we would shower upstairs in my grandparents’ apartment before going to our almost weekly family dinners at the restaurant of my grandparents’ choosing. Half-naked and ducking my mother’s attempts to approach me with a hairdryer, I would admire family pictures around the condo: official cruise photos in their glossy paper frames, posed family portraits, and school pictures of my sisters and me. There were almost always snacks around, which my grandparents offered constantly, despite our pending dinner, and my grandpa would often encourage me to change the television channel in the living room to something I would rather watch, even when a football game was on.

[My grandfather] loved us, he loved listening to everyone catching up, he loved my grandma. I felt privileged to have a seat at their table.

Then we would drive over to a Chinese restaurant or Japanese diner or the occasional steakhouse. With my grandparents forming the center of gravity, we would all pack into a large booth together, leaning in as they told us stories about their travels. They had a whole routine down with my grandma often enthusiastically beginning a story and my grandpa nodding in agreement beside her: a transatlantic cruise, a tour of Europe, a visit to Japan to see the cherry blossoms. One anecdote, in particular, shattered my preteen heart into a million pieces: one time, on a return flight to Hawaii, they were bumped to first-class, and found themselves sitting next to Justin Timberlake, Lance Bass, and the other members of NYSNC. As they regaled us with stories, waiters would stop by, asking for gambling tips my grandparents had picked up on their latest trip to Vegas.

Together, the two were the life of the party: my grandmother, always joking, commanding the room, a masterful raconteur; and my grandpa, her perfect complement, beaming by her side, giggling after her every punchline as though it was the first time he had ever heard it. My grandpa especially seemed to love these dinners, joyfully taking in the company of our family. He loved us, he loved listening to everyone catching up, he loved my grandma. I felt privileged to have a seat at their table.


When I finished sixth grade, my family moved from Hawaii to the suburbs of Georgia, but Oahu was always my home. In the summer months, we would return to the house where I grew up, complete with its shag carpet and ’50s flair, and resume our Hawaii lives: taking summer classes, hanging out at the mall with friends, and–most importantly of all–resuming family dinners.

Even when I left for college, I would still come back to visit whenever I could, staying with my grandparents in their condo. During the days, I would shadow my grandparents as they went about their days: watching The Price is Right with my grandfather, or watching my grandma make travel arrangements on her iPad.

In hindsight, I wonder if the midnight encounter might have been one of the first warning signs.

I was in my early 20s, and my grandparents usually let me do my own thing. One night, sneaking back into the house 2am after an evening out clubbing with my friends, I heard a rustling behind me as I took my heels off in the dark. It was my grandpa. Illuminated solely by the light leaking down the hall, he had appeared out of nowhere. My heart jumped guiltily in my chest as we studied one another. Then, I saw the bowl of Frosted Flakes in his hand.

“Want some?” he asked.

My grandparents are cool as shit, I thought to myself at the time. But in hindsight, I wonder if the midnight encounter might have been one of the first warning signs.


Long before we had a name for it–Alzheimer’s–we knew something was amiss with my grandpa.

We’d find him pacing around the apartment, moving things from one room to the next. Or we’d find him standing at the kitchen sink, washing a single spoon over and over again, which may not have even been dirty when he picked it up.

When I came to visit, Grandpa would hug me, but I could tell he didn’t know my name, or even what our relationship was.

For the most part, he was agreeable. He could pass as normal in large social situations, laughing when everyone else did, and fawning over my grandma. But if you watched him, you could see the subtle clues. He wouldn’t eat so much as push food around his plate, or offer it to others, claiming he was full despite having never taken a bite.

An old family friend said that my grandpa’s agreeable nature in the face of Alzheimer’s was a testament to what a good person he was before he was diagnosed. I appreciate the sentiment, but it always filled me with more questions. Who was he now? And what did that mean about the time we spent together? Did it mean anything at all?

Long before we had a name for it–Alzheimer’s–we knew something was amiss with my grandpa.

One summer night, my grandma gathered the relatives for dinner at a hotpot restaurant while I was in town. It felt just like it did when I was a kid. Everyone was talking loudly, telling stories about their travels. People asked me how New York was, where I’d been living for a few years, while we all cooked raw vegetables and meat slice in boiling pots of broth.

That was when my grandpa, who had been to this place before, picked up an uncooked noodle, took a bite of it, and frowned. “I don’t think I like the food here,” he said. I smiled reassuringly and showed him how to cook his noodle in the broth; no one else had noticed.

Afterwards, I couldn’t help but keep a close eye on him. I noticed my grandpa was looking through the faces of the people at the table, out of our private room. I tried to follow his gaze, but I couldn’t; I simply couldn’t understand what he was looking at.

Being so physically close to him but unable to connect was heartbreaking. I wondered if my grandpa felt that same sadness. Maybe in some ways, this is harder for us than it is for him, I thought to myself. If he can’t even remember, maybe he doesn’t understand what he’s lost.


When I got back to New York, I started writing to sort out my feelings.

The piece that started to take shape was a play. Not specifically about my grandpa, but a grandpa who suffered memory loss. It wasn’t Alzheimer’s, though. His memories were being stolen from him. There was an evil queen named Dementia, siphoning memories from David, the grandpa in the play who shared the same name as my own. And there was Mia, an estranged seven-year-old granddaughter, hell-bent on protecting David by collecting items of power from around her grandparents’ house to finally defeat the queen.

She wondered what it was like to lose all of your memories. She wanted to know how painful it would be

Mia asked all the questions I wanted to ask. She wondered what it was like to lose all of your memories. She wanted to know how painful it would be. Most of all, she wanted to know how to connect with someone she loved when he may not even know who she was.


As my trips to Hawaii became less frequent, my time there became more precious. I started spending less time with friends, and instead focused on my grandparents.

Suddenly, little moments felt very important. One afternoon, my grandma took us out for shave ice. My grandpa had a big sweet tooth, and we took our plastic cups back to the van and ate them in the car. We rolled down the windows, and my grandpa reclined his seat. I sat there, feeling the warm breeze on my face, as my grandpa finished his frosted rainbow cup, then closed his eyes for a short nap. Everyone was happy, and silent, and I couldn’t help but smile between bites.

But as much as I enjoyed these moments, I also felt an obligation to memorialize them. I tried to memorize every line of that moment–the incline of my grandpa’s seat, the expression on my grandma’s face, the exact patterns in each cup’s rainbow ice–so that the memory wouldn’t be lost in my mind, as it would be in my grandfather’s. There was an added layer of consciousness in our time, an awareness that every memory must be stockpiled for a time when I would need them for comfort.

I tried to memorize every line of that moment… so that the memory wouldn’t be lost in my mind, as it would be in my grandfather’s.

One day, my grandpa asked me if we could go for a swim together in the pool downstairs. In all our time together, he had never once shown any interest in swimming, but this time, he changed into his trunks and followed me out the door. I felt so goddamn grateful as I watched him float and bob around the water. At this point in his battle against Alzheimer’s, he sometimes wouldn’t even know who I was, yet here we were, sharing a rare moment together.

My next visit, my grandpa overheard my grandma mention I was on my way down to the pool. He perked up.

“We’ll go for a swim?” he asked, making little freestyle motions with his hands.

“Let her go, David,” my grandma said, mentioning it was time for a nap.

I went downstairs by myself, assuming he would sleep and forget the whole exchange. When I returned upstairs, however, he smiled at me.

“Swim?” he asked.

I wanted to throw up. Of all the things he remembered of our time together, that swim we had taken was one of them, and I had just shrugged off an opportunity to create another special moment we could have shared. I’d never get that opportunity back; we never ended up going swimming together again.


My play had a professional reading at the New Ohio Theatre in New York in 2013.

It was produced and directed by a coworker at the bookstore where I worked, and he assembled a top-notch cast for the occasion. I had a whole slew of professional actors at my disposal, one of which was on Broadway in Newsies, but one of my favorite people involved was the child actress playing Mia, who seemed fearless. My mom flew in for the big reading. She had never seen any of my plays, so it was a special occasion. I also had about 30 friends and colleagues in the audience, hearing my most personal work read out loud.

When the show was over, I received a lot of congratulations from the cast, crew, and audience. My mom really enjoyed seeing the process of a performance getting up on its feet. Some of my friends admitted to tearing up during the show.

But in the days that followed, I found myself getting a lot of feedback from colleagues. One note, in particular, came up consistently: Is this a kid’s show, or an adult’s show?

Mia conquered the fairy tale evil, but the very real consequences of Alzheimer’s persisted.

I was surprised. Despite the fairy tale plot, I’d never seen the play as being for kids. I saw Mia’s journey as an idealistic take on a disease that makes idealism impossible. It represented my hope that things maybe could get better, that there is something–anything–productive to do in the face of Alzheimer’s senseless loss.

The climax of the play occurs when Mia has collected all the items needed to defeat Queen Dementia. By recalling her favorite memories of her grandfather with these totems in hand, she is able to vanquish the Queen, and reclaim the key to the box where Dementia has hidden all of David’s memories. It rests on the family mantle, but when Mia reaches for it, David enters the room, startling it out of her hands to break open on the floor.

For a fleeting moment after the box breaks, David looks at Mia. There’s a flicker of recognition. But then Mia’s mom and Grandma come running into the room. The recognition is gone. Mia conquered the fairy tale evil, but the very real consequences of Alzheimer’s persisted.

Reality came crashing down with the locked box. All Mia’s hard work had culminated in a moment of clarity, but it had opened like a wound–pulsing and bright–and then healed over in the blink of an eye.


The news of my grandpa’s passing came quickly.

My grandparents were supposed to meet my parents in Vegas, but right before the trip, my grandpa was suddenly admitted into a hospice, By that weekend, he was gone. Spending the weekend with my boyfriend’s family for a barbecue, I remember crying outside a New Jersey Chili’s upon hearing the news. At the barbecue itself, I separated myself from the crowds, walked down the street to the boardwalk by the house, and wailed out my grief into the reeds lining the water, hugging myself as I did to keep myself together.

I had no illusions about how my grandpa’s life would end. I had been preparing myself for years for that call, stocking up my vault of memories. But as I gasped for air in the night, I realized that there had been part of me still believed the fairytale: that it was possible to vanquish Queen Dementia, and that I would be able to see Grandpa one more time, as he had been, if just for a minute.


I flew out for the funeral. With my work schedule and flights, I ended up in Hawaii for about 36 hours.

My mom and sisters and I stayed at an AirBnB within a few minutes of my grandparent’s condo which was so cramped, I had trouble sleeping. In the dark, I thought about that nightclub mural of my ‘Grandma’ snorkeling, and how the last time I saw it, they’d physically torn her out of it; only the ocean and fishes remained around the snorkeler-shaped gap. She was gone, but the absence of her was palpable. My grandpa, my childhood memories of going to the pool, that mural– everything was subject to change and loss. And I was the sea, feeling the gaps left by the things time had stolen from me.

At the funeral, I was given the task of handing out programs. On the outside was a photo of him smiling next to a giant spiral-cut, fried potato. It was a perfect choice–an image of the joy my grandpa got from the simplest things.

My grandpa, my childhood memories of going to the pool, that mural– everything was subject to change and loss.

The funeral itself was short but sweet. They played Taps on a bugle along with a military flag presentation, which I knew my grandpa would have loved. It reminded me of how, when my grandparents visited me in New York, he would grunt in appreciation during the pauses between lyrics in Broadway shows.

After the funeral, we all went to a Chinese restaurant for dim sum. There were faces there I hadn’t seen since my childhood.

When we walked in, my grandma was giving the waiters instructions, rearranging tables to make sure everyone was accommodated. Amidst the pinging of teacups, clinking of silverware, and whirring of Lazy Susans, people shared stories about my grandpa, and talked about things about him they’d miss.

But even there, life was moving on. At one point, during a talk about the latest movie releases, my Grandma perked up. “What’s Sausage Party?” she asked.

The table erupted in laughter.

I suddenly felt very thankful. We all missed my grandpa, and that loss will never go away. But the family will live on. Here, with all these people who loved and remembered him, something opened up, bright and pulsing. For a moment, even without him there, I was home again.

Creative Commons photo from Debs on Flickr.