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Grandad's Silent Ordeal with Alzheimer's

by J Robert Hager II(more info)

listed in alzheimer's, originally published in issue 121 - March 2006

At one time, I saw this picture too often!

It's one of my family's favourites – when they finally got to see it, that is. I kept the photo hidden away in my negative file, never printing it because it would make me wonder, again: did my dear grandfather know what was happening to him?

Did he realize it all too well when he told me to wait before I took the picture so he could put the ribbon on his head?

Yes, the prop was a good idea and made a cute, memorable shot, but, in retrospect, it was a bit scary to me. This was his last functional Christmas. Did he know? The next one was spent in the hospital with a blank face, not knowing anybody in the family, and seemingly, not even knowing it was Christmas. He died of Alzheimer's disease.

For a long while I couldn't even look at this picture, afraid of the thought of 'his thoughts' at that moment, and how maddening it must have been. Being a photographer, there were always other pictures to look at and study, so it was easy, in some respects. It wasn't a framed, mantle piece image constantly glaring at me from a piano top or shelf, and nobody else in my family had this picture of Poc or knew of it.

My Grandfather Poc

Poc. That's what I called him the first time I laid my baby eyes on him and could produce sound. It stuck, and everybody in the family called him Poc too.

Poc

Just because this picture wasn't out in the open, nobody else had one, and I had other subjects to keep me busy, doesn't mean I didn't see it frequently, when I least expected. Let me explain. Being a good photographer requires pre-visualization of an image, (seeing the picture in the mind's gallery before taking it). The only trouble is, when it's in this gallery there's no getting it out. All pictures remain where they're hung – at least in my gallery.

This one especially. This is Poc. This is my grandfather who died of this dreadful disease. We use to pass ball and bowl and play ping-pong. Like his brother Art, he loved the playing of games and magic. To have a good time, be with family and enjoy the simple pleasures in life – this mattered the most. It was their motto, and games were their holy ritual to enhance this life.

After time had done its mending, or tried to, I faced the fear head on and printed a full 8x10 of Poc. As you can see, the picture is out of hiding and hand toned. I thought he would like me to brighten it up a bit. He always thought black and white photography was so gloomy. He almost made me cry when he said Ansel Adams' work would have been better in colour.

Sure, I needed a push to do this, but it had to be solved. I wanted a good look at it, a good look at Poc; what I got was a surprising look at myself, and how I let fear control me and hide the positive side of Poc. It was a slow process, but a sure one-like watching a print start to appear in the developer tray. As Poc's profile rose from the paper, my smile rose along with it. I found that there was so much more to my Grandfather than just the Alzheimer's!

I saw Poc again, only this time in a different light, in a different ball-park. You see, my grandfather liked the playing of the game, any game, better than wanting to win or trying not to lose. He played the game to the fullest, and when it was over he'd go over it with us again, to recap certain moves-which ones to keep or not. Whether if he had lost or won; to him, every game ended the same. He was as happy at the end of a tight, competitive match as he was initiating it.

He liked colour photography, but when Polaroid came out – prints almost instantly – you would have thought aliens handed it to him. It was magical, but he had a one-track mind. The Game. I can't tell you how many Polaroid pictures I have of Poc bowling. I can see him now, analyzing the still warm picture, colour or not, I shot of a certain position he was in. Then, without any break in concentration he'd step up for another roll. Having me repeat my position with the camera as well, only at a different angle this time. But, I remember, he wasn't making as many strikes; when his interest was swaying more toward his position on a print, and not directed solely on the game. He must have realized this error, in the making, because after a while I found that I was using the camera for him less, and actually, bowling more with my Granddad. Which, I'm sure we both enjoyed better, not that I made more strikes than him, ever, but I could tell his heart was more in the game, and teaching me, rather than fooling too much with an image. The game was important, as I learned from him, beyond the frivolous things that went on at the side lines. He would have made a wonderful coach; could never guarantee a win, but the players would sure love their game, and learn, love, admire and cherish the moments with their coach, as I have with Poc.

So, I think he handled those moments of desperation and anguish with this disease the same as he had always handled a game. And whether or not he put the ribbon on his head as a light-hearted rebuttal to a horrendous realization, I'll never know for sure. I like to think he did, though, and happy to have been there to capture it. As if he was just starting another game – ribbon in place for all to see and to remember him as a sincere player of good cheer, posing for the camera; no matter what was on the scoreboard.

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About J Robert Hager II

J Robert Hager II received a camera from his father in the 1960s; an English teacher told him he could write in the 1970s. Poc was born 1/8/1903… he died 7/7/1988… thus he was 85 years old. The photo was taken Christmas of 1985. Poc was in the 'In-Hospital Facility' for two years, then transferred home to be with Mamie and family members. Robert may be contacted via 4jrh2@netscape.com

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