Photo courtesy of Clara Luu
Every summer day in Northern California is a blessing. The sun lights up a relentlessly blue sky, the breeze whips in from the Pacific Ocean, and if the air had a flavor, it would be farmfresh berries. As we walk to the local cabana club in San Jose, I’m grateful for this precious day in the sun, another beautiful California day I can share with my grandmother.
For the past couple of years, my Amah, my father’s mother, has been living with Alzheimer’s disease. But that has not stopped her from insisting upon her daily swim. Nearly every day, she takes the five-minute stroll to the local pool, steps purposefully in the water and swims a very serious doggy paddle for an hour. As she paddles up and down the pool, I’m proud of this fragile old lady who still maintains her tough character and mischievous smile, even when she grows more frustrated day by day with routine tasks, weather-worn limbs and a fleeting memory.
Summers at Grandma’s House
As I gaze at the sky, I realize my childhood was defined by summers. Summer was when my cousins and I would reunite at my Amah’s house, enjoy tastes of Chinese food and culture, and spend time with our grandma. My grandma’s house was a place where I could explore my heritage, appreciate stories of a faraway land and recent family experiences in the United States, and at the same time figure out my values and the proper balance between cultures. Summers tasted of fresh peaches, spices and bitter herbs; sounded like screechy Chinese soap operas; and felt like embroidered dragon patterns on silk pillows and Amah’s soft, wrinkly skin.
For many summers, life was good. My Amah occupied herself in the kitchen, efficiently julienning vegetables and stir-frying them to perfection, and she enjoyed her soap operas that played on the television at a normal volume. But lately, summers are much quieter because my grandma mostly rests in a rocking chair and naps throughout the day. We don’t let her cook as much anymore because we’re worried she’ll forget and leave something burning on the stove. She tells fewer stories and sings fewer songs; she laughs more softly and even looks softer, less suntanned and more easily wearied. The weeds rejoice at my grandma’s less frequent attacks, and peaches drop and smush on the lawn faster than my Amah can pick them.
My family has noticed these gradual changes. We miss the perfectly steamed vegetables and the ability to hold a conversation without shouting over the television. But most of all, we miss my Amah’s sunburst-like energy and the woman with a fiery spirit—a widow who raised seven children, crossed an ocean and transplanted herself into a whole new life in America.
Although she’s no longer quite as ferocious as she once was, my Amah is still an inspiration because she fights every day for a return to normalcy and is strong in small ways. I watch the way she pores over books and newspapers, stitching together words that used to flow, and the way she won’t give up; the way she trudges out each day to water the garden and to battle the weeds; the way she insists on doing her daily swim.
Celebrating the Good Times
Living with a loved one who has Alzheimer’s disease or a related condition is hard on everyone involved. Days are speckled with frustration and relief, and sprinkled with appreciation for the good moments and apprehension for the potentially bad ones. My family has been resilient, which has helped me come to terms with the emotions of having a loved one succumb to a neurodegenerative condition. Whenever my family is together, we remember the good times, sharing stories and looking over pictures from past vacations, laughing at memories and looking forward to good moments in the future. We’re getting better at figuring out what really matters: rather than focus on my Amah’s gradual decline, we celebrate her legacy and her daily triumphs.
My relationship with my grandma has influenced how I approach life and the person I would like to become. She has, by example, inspired me to be spirited in the face of adversity. Like the relentless blue of the California sky and the constancy of the shining sun, every day my Amah makes me proud of her. Right before we climb out of the pool and head home, I kiss my grandmother for another summer day well lived.
Clara Luu, age 18, is the 2011 winner of the Alzheimer’s Foundation of America’s AFA Teens College Scholarship, an annual $5,000 scholarship presented to a college-bound student with a winning essay about the impact of Alzheimer’s disease. AFA Teens educates and engages teens, and encourages them to form chapters nationwide; visit www.afateens.org for more information.
Editor’s Note: This article appears in the September/October, 2011, issue ofAging Today, ASA’s bi-monthly newspaper covering issues in research, practice and policy nationwide. ASA members receive Aging Today as a member benefit; non-members may purchase subscriptions at our online store.
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