Falling Asleep with your Eyes Open

Posted: June 29, 2010 in Uncategorized

Educators and other school staff should be more aware of the fact that children often have a lot going on at home that they are trying to understand. Here’s a glimpse into my experiences with my grandmother, who had Alzheimer’s.


Falling Asleep With your Eyes Open

My grandmother’s 87-year-old frail, fragile body sits alone at the table. The food in front of her is growing cold and her brain isn’t telling her she is supposed to be eating it. The mound of mashed potatoes, the peas, and the cut turkey all remain neatly in their respective sections. My dad and I have come for a visit. I guess the staff must be preoccupied because nobody is assisting her. My dad and I approach the table, but her head does not turn, the life in her vacant eyes does not appear. “Hi mommy,” my dad says with a cheerful tone. “Do you know who this is?” He’s looking from my grandmom to me, and then back at her. “Oh my, what a beautiful child,” my grandmother replies with genuine happiness as she tunes into reality. “This is your granddaughter, Laura,” my dad reminds her. “Oh yes. Oh my, what a beautiful child.”

A few years before my grandmom was admitted to the nursing home, my mom walks next door to my grandparents’ house to visit, and finds her sitting in front of the television, staring at it intently as if in a trance. My mom attempts to begin a conversation, and my grandmother becomes furious and snaps her head around. “Shhh! I’m getting a message.” My mom is speechless, unsure how to react. The television isn’t even turned on.

In the middle of the night, the doorbell rings. My mom cautiously opens the door and my tiny grandmother is standing there in her nightgown and slippers. She is frightened and must take cover at our house because my grandfather has tried to kill her. In a fit of rage, he tried to push her down the stairs, but lord have mercy, she escaped. My dad awakens from his slumber and walks her back home. My grandfather is sound asleep, unaware that she has crawled out of bed. It takes a group effort to convince her that she is safe.

My sister and I are in the car with our grandparents and our aunt, on our way to a family reunion in the mountains of West Virginia. My sister has a pack of cards and she wants to play Go Fish. She asks our grandmother to play and attempts to hand her some cards, but our grandmother is motionless. “Look,” my sister points out, “grandmom fell asleep with her eyes open.”

They say Alzheimer’s skips a generation… Once the disease latches on, the symptoms worsen until the victim reaches a point where he or she cannot process reality. At first the forgetfulness is funny. “This isn’t my scotch? I left my drink right here!” As memory loss progresses, this humor turns to defense. “I’m not crazy!” The third stage is all about faking it. “Merciful heavens. Of course I remember him. What a handsome boy he is!” The last stage is oblivion. Towards the end, my grandmother spent a lot of time singing quietly and having conversations with someone invisible to us. Her body withered away, but she wasn’t bitter or depressed during the last leg of her illness.

Sometimes I wonder if she ever found herself in a brief pocket of clarity, where she remembers that her husband has died, that she has two daughters and a son, that she once held a paintbrush and captured the colors reflecting from the Severn River. I imagine her alone in the nursing home, her hollow eyes coming alive and temporarily reflecting a fervent plea, begging anyone to appear so that she can say she is here. She can sense the wave approaching and knows she is powerless to stop the surging, roaring waters that will cause her brain to go haywire. The wave crashes and her thoughts churn and refuse to connect. She softly hums and her face transforms into its usual serene demeanor.

I hope to ward off this possible infestation of the brain and prevent myself from becoming a living zombie. I examine deodorant labels and purchase the stick that doesn’t contain aluminum. I read books and play Sudoku, attempting to keep myself mentally stimulated. I know that eating walnuts and salmon are recommended, but I can’t say I consume much of either.

I imagine myself in the future, surrounded by a group of pleasant strangers. “Are you too cold? Would you like a sweater?” “Isn’t that a beautiful painting they have on the wall?”. I am able to adequately respond to these questions, and then I begin humming a tune that no one is able to identify. I am oblivious.


This is my grandparents’ house, right before it was torn down. It was on the Severn River in Anne Arundel County.


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