Still Alice*, by Lisa Genova, is a novel in which a psychology professor struggles with Alzheimer’s Disease. Her poignant and gripping story reawakened for me the real life drama between my pioneer-woman grandmother, Elsa, who lost her memory, and my remarkable grandfather, Dan, who cared for her.
Elsa Eleanor Keene was born in Clay Center, Kansas, in 1888. A family story handed down to us is that her brother Jessie, who was a barber, cut Dwight Eisenhower’s hair in the days before he became president. Daniel Charley Grosenbach was born in Peoria, Illinois, in 1882. A family story from his side is that his grandfather, Jacob, knew Abraham Lincoln.
Elsa and Dan met in south central Nebraska and married in 1906. They and their nine children lived in Mascot. On their 480-acre farm, they raised corn, oats, potatoes, cabbage, asparagus, green beans, cantaloupe, and watermelon.
In the thirties, widespread drought hit Nebraska, the wind rattling every window and filling every cranny with dust from the parched fields. Dan and Elsa had to find a way to put food on the table. In 1938, they auctioned off their land and everything that wouldn’t fit into two trailers and moved to Nampa, Idaho, where Dan bought ten acres of land. He became a dairy farmer with an average of twenty-five milk cows and sixty chickens.
Dan wore bibbed overalls except on Sundays when they went to church. God-fearing people, they read scripture and knelt to say the Lord’s Prayer in their dining room every morning. Elsa made her own bread, tended a vegetable garden, gathered eggs, and butchered chickens, while Dan milked cows twice a day and managed his sales enterprise to the Carnation Milk Company.
When the work was done, Elsa and Dan and the family played Dominoes or Scrabble. Elsa crocheted intricate, pineapple-patterned tablecloths, played their pump organ, around which the family gathered to sing, and kept a daybook of special events as well as the names of visitors they hosted over the years.
Dan, an excellent whistler, played the accordion and the harmonica. He drove a 1930 Model A Ford. At family reunions, we played croquet on their spacious lawn under tall shade trees, and the adults played horseshoes. We, the grandkids, counted it an honor to be included in a game of Dominoes or Scrabble, but I never won a Scrabble game in which he participated, unless he helped me.
One day, when I was at their house, Elsa found a mistake in a large tablecloth she was crocheting. After slight hesitation, she unraveled eight inches of her work, winding it around a ball of crochet thread. When I said that I couldn’t even see the mistake and no one would ever know, she said, “But I would.” When I asked how she could bear losing all that work, she said, “You can’t go back and undo most mistakes in life, but this one I can fix.”
Elsa’s and Dan’s life together changed when Elsa began showing signs of forgetfulness and confusion. She forgot which day of the week it was. She repeated herself, offering comments such as, “I think I hear the train coming,” several times in as many minutes until the train finally was out of hearing range. No sooner than dinner dishes had been washed, she started peeling potatoes for dinner again.
Dan knew he had to do something. Resourceful and wise, he devised a way to help Elsa and himself cope with what was happening while at the same time encouraging her independence: he put up a chalk board, upon which he wrote the date, the day of the week, and the last meal they had eaten. (It was his own version of what we called Reality Therapy in psychiatric nursing.) He led her through their daily routine and updated the board after every meal.
In the late 1960s, people chalked up old age confusion to senility, a condition common to one’s latter years. Elsa, not one to complain or go to the doctor, was never formally diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease. Generally cheerful, she would laugh and say, “Sometimes I think I’m losing my memory.” The rest of us didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.
Dan finally sold the farm, and he and Elsa became mobile as they moved from Idaho to Washington, Oregon, Illinois, and Nebraska, living first with one then another of their adult children, who welcomed them for periods ranging from a few weeks to several years. Despite being surrounded by family, Elsa became more disoriented, made a jumble of her crocheting, and lost her memory of the distant past and their sixty-something years of marriage, as well as what was happening in real time.
One night when it was bedtime, she said, “Why, Dan! You know we’re not married yet. You’ll have to sleep in the other room.” Dan didn’t argue. He knew she would probably forget in a few minutes and all would be well.
Once a gregarious person with a ready smile, Elsa grew quieter until she stopped talking altogether. At times she became agitated, unable to pinpoint what was wrong, but mostly she sat in silence, her hands oddly still in her lap. Dan waited on her, tended to her needs as he was able, and appreciated the hospitality and help of his grown children.
On a trip across country, my husband and I stopped to see my grandparents in Sidney, Nebraska, where they lived for a time with my Aunt Esther. Elsa listened as we reminisced about old times. Dan and my Aunt Esther told us how they played Scrabble to pass the time and had devised a unique set of new rules. Seems they divided up all the tiles at the start of the game (each person had fifty) and removed the limit on how many tiles they could play in one turn so the word played could be as long as they wanted, which meant the word could easily cover two Triple Word Scores squares. They enjoyed showing us their extravagant game scores.
At dinnertime, we all gathered around the table where my grandfather said the blessing. While we were eating, I asked for the butter with as few words as possible because I didn’t want to interrupt the conversation. Out of the blue, Elsa looked at Dan and then at me as she spoke for the first time since we’d arrived. “She didn’t say ‘please’.” We felt blessed to hear Elsa’s voice anew and see the sparkle in her eyes.
Elsa died in her sleep a few weeks before her eighty-sixth birthday. Twelve days later, Dan died in his sleep at the age of ninety-one, his earthly joys and responsibilities concluded. Both Elsa and Dan looked forward to meeting again in heaven because they trusted their future to Jesus, who said, “I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in Me will live even if he dies, and everyone who lives and believes in Me will never die.”