Over a decade ago, my father and I went to Winterset, Iowa, to bury my grandmother, Frances Brock. She had died after almost a decade battling Alzheimer’s disease. I never really knew her before the disease took hold, or at least was too young to have committed a relationship to my own memory. Getting to know someone so deeply in Alzheimer’s grip was nearly impossible. It is a horrific disease, and I have never been able to wrap my head around the idea of living an entire life and then forgetting it so quickly. Her service was small and short: I remember very little of it. It was a strange feeling, saying goodbye to someone I did not know well, and who had, against her own will, literally forgotten who I was. She was, I’ve been told, a magnificent piano player. I always wish I’d heard her play.
This summer, I returned to Winterset for a second time, again with my father and the rest of our family, to bury my grandfather, Raymond Brock, Sr., who died on January 1st this year. Grandpa was a serious person. Like many from of his generation, he lived a serious life: he grew up in the depression, served in WWII, and did what needed to be done to get food on the table for the family. His intensity could be both a blessing and curse: while he meant the best, he was never one for joking around. His intensity was often an obstacle for him when it came to building relationships. We visited infrequently, at best once a year for a weekend. As I grew older, the trips lessened. It was always a hard trip, and became more difficult every year. Watching Grandma slip further and further away was hard for everybody, and it was coupled with the wear on Grandpa. I remember one year in particular where it became very clear how sick Grandma actually was: she couldn’t remember my name, and had trouble with my Dad’s, her own son. I still can’t imagine what it must have been like for my grandfather, day after day, to wake up knowing his wife would remember just a little bit less of their life together.
In less than a year, I will be getting married. I will stand in front of my closest friends and family and take those solemn vows that unite two people in a lifelong commitment to each other, regardless of what life throws at them. I am fortunate to have many people in my life who have epitomized the strength of this bond. Ashleigh and I were able to celebrate my parents’ 40th wedding anniversary with them this February, a bond that has taught me an unending amount about love, commitment, and responsibility. Every month I get to visit my Grandmother on my mother’s side in St. Mary’s City, and we always talk about Pop-Pop. Even though he passed away 16 years ago, she still gets a twinkle in her eyes when his name is mentioned, or when she reminisces about a moment in their lives. My aunts and uncles all have strong, loving relationships. Even my own friends have worked to establish strong and supportive bonds, as they, one by one, take the plunge into marriage. I am blessed to be surrounded and influenced by these examples, and I hope to apply something from each of them to my own marriage.
Grandma and Grandpa’s marriage is no different. In fact, it is Grandpa’s actions that most explicitly exemplify the importance of these vows. It is one thing to overcome obstacles in a relationship, or to care for someone who has a cough. Alzheimer’s is a whole other beast: the person you care for doesn’t know what’s happening. They forget. Grandpa could have easily put Grandma in a home, or hired someone to help him care for her when the Alzhiemer’s began to take over. But he didn’t. He moved outside his comfort zone, teaching himself to cook and clean, and every day cared for his sick wife. For a decade he took care of a woman he loved so much that it didn’t matter that she had forgotten her children’s names, needed help getting dressed, or who had forgotten much of their life together. He had to give up barbershop quartet music, his favorite hobby; he couldn’t socialize with his friends; he was unable to visit the rest of his children and their families, because his duty to his wife stood in the way. In this instance, his intensity and his seriousness, obstacles for him in other parts of his life, were his greatest strengths: he had made a commitment to his wife to be with her through thick and thin, sickness and health, and he kept that promise. Day in. Day out.
My grandfather was an intense person, and we did not know each other well. I know his life was often hard, and that it knocked him down more than once. I am saddened that I was unable to see him before he died, and regret that he won’t be able to witness my wedding day. But I will be eternally grateful to him for teaching me about commitment and responsibility. It is that spirit that I will keep with me every day of my marriage.
Rest in Peace, Raymond L. Brock, Sr. (August 20, 1922 – January 1, 2011)
In an effort to make sure some good comes of their passing, I have set up a fund in their memory at the Alzheimer’s Association. If you’re feeling generous, please take a moment and make a donation to help end this miserable disease. Thank you!