My grandfather was diagnosed with Alzheimer when I was in my early teens. He had surely had the disease for a while then. Forgetting where he parked the car, where he put his pipe, forgetting appointments and things. He could forget what he did the day before but still could go on for hours about the life he led as a kid on the Vestmanneyjar island. During my entire teenage years there were three of us. My father, my grandfather and me. It was a nice combination although the disease reared its ugly head as I grew older and became harder and harder to handle. I could tell you horror stories, sad stories about the look in his eyes when he realized just how bad it was and how far he was gone. I could tell you about the loss of control mentally and physically. I could tell you stories but the story I’m going to tell is about my grandfather and a book.
He was far gone by then but still sometimes lucid. I guess he was somewhere in stage 5 but he still had his good days. He always seemed to have good days, even when he was at his worst, he still had days when he could remember.
My grandfather was an electrician. He was an action oriented man, he liked to walk and do things with his hands and I don’t remember ever seeing him read. Not even newspapers. He listened to the radio and he watched television to get his news. I lived with my entire life until the day he died at home, I was nineteen and I never saw him read except once.
He picked up a book for young adults called “Gauragangur” written by Ólaf Hauk Símonarson. I had already read the book and was delighted and very surprised to see him read it. I don’t know why he started it. If he just saw it lying around and started to read the first chapter by chance or if someone actually told him he should. I don’t know but he did read it and he read it from page to page laughing.
And boy did he laugh. He even brought the book to my room sometimes and read me something he found particularly funny. We’d snicker together and then talk about it. Sometimes these discussions were short – sometimes he’d linger and start to tell me about the times he never forgot and about his father who became ninety-eight-years-and-so-and-so-many days-old.
It’s always amazed me what this book did for him. Alzheimer does a lot to you – not just to your memory. You become angry and resentful and it’s something that’s hard to deal with. It’s hard to bring a smile to someone’s face who hardly remembers what he did a few minutes ago. (And sometimes it’s very hard to remember that it’s the disease talking and not the person!) This book was a treasure. I was already a book lover by then. I guess I have my grandmother to thank for that but this experience taught me that books aren’t just for amusement. They can actually make your life better. He seemed himself when he read the book. He seemed to connect and understand in ways he rarely did anymore. These were very good moments.
I’ll leave you with a short quote I just translated from the book. There are funnier chapters in it but I remember him so well reading this to me. The main character is the one who starts talking:
“-Further, I developed two philosophical doctrines in light of my experience. First of all: you are what you eat. Second of all: People aren’t as dumb as they look, they’re dumber.
-Kiosks hatch philosophers, Óli said and nodded his head pleased, It’s amazing how many people turn into philosophers inside kiosks. “ (from Gauragangur, by Ólafur Haukur Símonarson).
I still read this book sometimes when I want to smile and when I want to remember my grandfather.