My granddad, Bill Cregan, was tall, thin, and resembled Clint Eastwood. Despite his having the title of grandfather, I never viewed him as old or frail; he was always strong and fit.
He was constantly active, whether it was working in the garden or in the garage with tools. He was a quiet and reserved man who carried himself with a grace and confidence that I have seen few others replicate.
I can’t recall a time where he had to raise his voice to us grandchildren, and yet, we never misbehaved in his presence.
It was as if we knew better than to bother him by acting out; we regarded him so highly that, even as kids, we thought his having to scold mischievous grandchildren was beneath him.
For as long as I can remember, my grandfather had a deep scar running down the center of his forehead, and for children who hadn’t learned the intricacies of social graces, it was always a conversation topic.
“What happened to your forehead?” we would ask. My grandfather would then tell us how, in World War II, he was on the deck of a boat when they saw a torpedo being shot through the water from an enemy submarine.
As it barreled towards their boat, the men began to panic, and my grandfather knew he had to do something. He dove into the water, stopped the torpedo with his bare hands, and with every ounce of strength he had, turned it around.
As he slowly turned it away from the ship, one of its blades grazed his forehead, creating the scar we now saw. I believed this story for much longer than I should have.
It was tales like this that made him a living legend — a man who was untouchable and able to protect you from anything. Aside from the hero-like status he developed among us grandchildren, he was an engineer who built the house my mother grew up in.
He was a true New Yorker; he grew up in Brooklyn, dove for coins off of the pier in Sheepshead Bay, was a fireman, and served as the Port Engineer of the City of New York.
He even witnessed when the New York streets changed from cobblestone to pavement, and took the cobblestones that were being pulled up and used them for the driveway and patio of their Long Island home.
When my grandparents moved to Pennsylvania when I was 9, there was a man-made lake in their backyard. I remember one day, my grandfather and I walked to its edge and I watched as he would pick up rocks and effortlessly toss them towards the water where they would skip across the surface.
I was fascinated by this, and he spent an afternoon showing me what kind of rocks to pick, and how to hold and toss the stone. I remember how proud I was when, after countless attempts, my rock finally began to hop along the water with the grace of my grandfather’s.
My grandparents and I were always close, and at the end of my freshman year of college, it was my granddad and grandma who came to move me out of my dorm.
My grandfather was so strong that he carried out the majority of my belongings himself. It was then that I first noticed his memory loss. From Wake Forest, we drove down to their house on Pawley’s Island.
My grandfather and I sat in their sun room and he asked me how old I was. “I’m 19,” I replied. He nodded. “And where do you go to school?”
Over the years, I watched him slowly deteriorate. Although his memory was quickly fading, he was able to hold on to a few stories which he would always retell. Throughout my college years, I often made the four and a half hour drive to spend a weekend with them.
It was during this time that he was acutely aware of his memory loss and it was a great source of anxiety for him. At first, when he began recounting a story that I had heard numerous times, I would tell him I knew it. I stopped doing this when I saw the genuine distress come over his face as his mind began reeling.
“Oh, I told you this already? I’m sorry, I don’t remember that,” he would say. I learned that most people during this stage of Alzheimer’s have to be medicated because it is too stressful to deal with what is happening to their mind.
Once, when we were watching TV, he told me the same story at least 3 times in one sitting. After he would finish, he would take a long pause— it was as if his brain was resetting— and he would begin again, repeating the story almost verbatim.
It was a memory of his time as a Chief Engineer aboard the United Fruit boats where one of his responsibilities was to make sure that the refrigerated compartments remained at certain temperatures so the produce would not spoil.
I could no longer bare to tell him that I had just heard this story and take away what little he had left. After he finished recounting the story for a second time, he paused and turned to me. “Did I ever tell you about how I was an engineer for United Fruit?” I sat there with tears in my eyes, smiled and said, “No,” as he began to tell me again.
When my grandmother was sick, my grandfather could not seem to comprehend what was happening. As she lay in hospice, he seemed unfazed. We would tell him how ill she was, and moments later, he would forget what had just been discussed.
On the morning of her funeral, my mom asked me to sit with him while he ate breakfast. While he sat eating his cereal, he turned to me and asked, “Where’s Doris?” I hesitated, knowing that if I told him what had happened, it would not sink in and he would not be able to remember within a few minutes.
Despite this, I said, “Granddad, I’m sorry. Grandma died and is in Heaven.” “How do you know?” he challenged, to which I responded, “I just know.”
That seemed to be enough for him as he sat in silence, looking at his bowl of Cheerios. He then said thoughtfully, “We loved each other for a very long time, you know.”
As his disease progressed, he no longer said my name or his pet name for me: Caitlin. Following my grandmother’s death, he had come to a point where he needed 24 hour supervision, and was moved to what was called a Memory Care Facility.
He was in a room we decorated and which still had the bed he and my grandma had slept in for over fifty years. On the times I came to visit, he did not know exactly who I was, but there was a familiarity he had with me.
I believed it was because I looked so similar to my grandma, that he always seemed to know I was a part of his family and often assumed I was one of his daughters.
The last time I visited my grandfather, my mom warned me that he was now unable to hold conversations and properly respond to things like, ”I love you.” Earlier that day, I tried the call and response that had always worked before.
In years past, I would begin reciting the names of his 7 children in order: “Donna, Billy, Ellen…” and he would automatically rattle off, “Carol, Bobby, Timmy, Eric.” Now “Donna, Billy, Ellen…” was met with silence.
As I sat in the lounge area of the Memory Care Facility with my grandfather, I told him I had to go. Surprisingly, he looked up at me and asked, “Why?” “Because I have to go home,” I said, “But I love you very much.”
My grandfather, rocking in his chair, responded, “I love you so so so so so so much.” The nurses standing in a nearby doorway gasped and told me that they had never heard him say that. It was a moment that had become too rare for our family and the last one I had with him.
When a loved one has Alzheimer’s, you watch them forget you, and even worse, themselves. They no longer know their likes, dislikes, experiences, past loves, sense of humor— the things that make someone who they are.
As an onlooker, you feel helpless and it is as if you were watching someone drown. Their heads bob above the water that is this disease before they duck below the surface.
Every once in awhile, they come back up for air, and you get a moment of lucidity and hope as you watch them try to swim again. Eventually, you see them above water for what you don’t know is the last time, and then they disappear from the person you knew forever.
It is a disease that has two deaths. You first mourn the death of their mind as you watch them slowly slip away from you, and eventually, after the disease has taken its toll, you have to say goodbye to them physically.
I have now had to do both— and one is not any easier than the other. I am grateful my grandfather is no longer in pain and living an existence I know he would not want, but I am heartbroken to lose him.
So, as I move forward, I will take with me the memories of us and himself that he so desperately tried to hold onto but couldn’t.
And when I think of him, I will think of his struggle with this horrible disease, but more so, I will remember the strong man I knew — the one who would jump into the water to save a boat full of men and who would be able to rise to the surface not only a hero, but a survivor.