My student, Lara King, has kindly agreed to allow me to reprint her winning essay here on my blog. I believe this beautifully-written piece deserves a wider audience than simply the judges for the Scholastic Art and Writing contest. Please read this touching essay about Lara and her grandmother who suffered from Alzheimer’s disease, and feel free to share with others if you are inclined.
I am from a small, rural town on the shores of Lake Huron called Alpena, Michigan. Len’s daughter Liz and Liz’s boyfriend Ron visited my family a few years ago. They told us about Len Leatherwood and her love and talent for writing. My sister and I took one of her Story Circle online classes. We not only improved our writing skills but also learned about ‘flash fiction’. Len introduced me to the Scholastic awards. After consulting with her via phone calls, I prepared some pieces of writing and submitted them the contest.
My paternal grandmother was raised in Scotland to a privileged family. She was a top runner at St. Andrews and was preparing for the Olympics until World War 2 began. She met my grandfather and returned to his home country New Zealand with him. I met her for the first time during one of my stays in New Zealand. By that time, she had been suffering from Alzheimer’s disease for two decades. Despite experiencing severe memory loss, she remained passionate about music and could still play the piano perfectly. In ‘Ship of Theseus’, I explored the theme of identity using Theseus’s paradox and other metaphors.
Ship of Theseus – Personal Essay / Memoir
Theseus’s Paradox: A wooden boat has its original boards replaced with new boards over time. If all of the original boards are eventually replaced, is it the same boat?
I rose from the tartan sofa to help escort my grandmother to her piano. Slipping my hand through the nook of her arm, I supported her right side while her long-term caregiver supported the left. She clung to the two of us as she shuffled unsteadily to the black velvet bench. We lowered her gently onto the seat. Turning slightly, my grandmother gazed at me as if I were a stranger. Her shriveled mouth pursed for a moment, but, by then, the thought disappeared. Nonetheless, she straightened her spine, positioned her fingers, and began to play the piano as I watched.
Like crops infiltrated with saltwater, my grandmother’s pestilent disease had not only corroded and destroyed her memories, but also prevented her from cultivating new ones. The vestiges of her childhood, education, travels, and family barely remained accessible. Recently, her youngest child had been missing from her list of children that she recited. She had never known her grandchildren. Even after I spent hours with my grandmother, she could never produce a name, a face, a label for me.
Every day, she wore the same heavy layers of clothes and the same indifferent countenance, corrugated in wrinkles from a lifetime she could not remember. I stroked her eternally cold hands and asked questions. I could never fathom the world in which she lived; a world lacking meaning, history, substance, purpose. A world consisting merely of the random ideas and thoughts that stuck in her mind like gum on a sidewalk. Within a single visit, she would attest to owning the title of ‘fastest runner in Scotland’ numerous times in response to questions. Every sound in the background could be attributed to her brother, long dead, entering the house from the garden. My grandmother’s memories of her beloved homeland of Scotland and cherished brother, however, existed only in the form of empty words. Over time, these desultory statements grew more and more meaningful to me; they were all she had left.
During my frequent wanderings throughout her house, I examined the plein air paintings hanging on the walls and the family photographs lining every surface. Searching for any hint of my grandmother’s identity through her long-forgotten collection of books, souvenirs, decorations, and furniture led me to dead ends. I imagined her sculpting her identity – making memories, collecting knowledge, gathering thoughts – like an intricate sandcastle on a beach, only for the ocean waves to ebb away at the foundation until it collapsed into an amorphous mound.
One aspect of her identity, however, seemed immune to the tide: her love of music.
Her hands, translucent enough to see the purple veins beneath, danced effortlessly across the piano keys. They did not require her eyes, faded and foggy with cataracts, in order to hit each note at the right timing. She chose melodies from either dormant memories or song requests and executed them perfectly, like a human jukebox.
If a person has their original memories stripped away over time, how much of the same person remains?
Was my grandmother the same person? The same avid bird-watcher who had saved dozens of books on bird species and could, at one time in her life, accurately identify every specimen that visited her garden, even if she now recognizes the creatures only as colorful masses? The same doting mother of six, despite forgetting the existence of one child? Or was this version of her simply the palimpsest of her former existence?
I could not tell. As my grandmother reached the end of the song, I wished I knew. Still, in face of loss, she clung onto the last intact aspect of her identity. Like the band that played as the Titanic sank deeper and deeper into the ocean, she not only endured the vicissitudes, but also maintained the most fundamental joy in her life.
And like the Titanic, my grandmother was a doomed vessel. She passed away two years later, though my father said that it was simply the death of her physical being. Still, I grieved the loss of my grandmother and the role she was meant to play in my life. Her favorite piano and bagpipe songs were played at her funeral. I thought about her love of music and the boat paradox. Her memories may have vanished, but she retained the intrinsic shape of the ship, the shell of her existence. Gazing around at the funeral attendees and listening to her favorite songs, I realized that I inherited her life’s frame. I would save the memories that she could not keep and preserve the ones that she could.