Memory, Reality

This college essay for admission to Cornell University was written by my daughter, Alissa, at the age of 17.

Memory: The music blares. The lights come up. Two figures appear on the state. The audience erupts into thunderous applause. The act begins. Five, six, seven, eight… Some of the greatest footwork ever seen. Absolutely unbelievable. What talent. To the crowd’s dismay, the performance is over all too soon.

Reality: The stage – an old cardboard box dug out from the garage. The audience – Mom, Dad, and Grandpa. The talented dancers – my grandmother (Nana) and, of course, myself.

The scene is so clear to me. I am wearing my favorite blue and white-checkered dress. Nana has on bright red lipstick, which eventually will end up all over my face after the encore. It was one of my favorite moments – the spotlight on me and Nana by my side. Sometimes I yearn to go back to that moment rather than see how things are today.

The reality of today: Nana is by my side once again, but she stumbles over my name and looks confused when I reminisce about our dance performance of years ago. She sits in a daze and searches for what seems like ages to come up with the answer to simple questions. The bright red lipstick, once perfectly applied, has faded into haphazard smears. The eyes, once sparkling with life and energy have turned into a glazed, vacant expression.

It is into those eyes that I look for answers. What has happened to the vibrant woman I remember? Each day she seems to slip a little further away into her own world. What’s it like in there? Will this be my mother in 30 years or me in 60?

“Alzheimer’s disease,” the doctor reports his diagnosis dispassionately. My mom and I each squeeze on of Nana’s hands, as though that will make the words disappear. Alzheimer’s: a disease that robs you of time, memory, dignity. Alzheimer’s: a disease with no hope.

The memory: Nana is the chairperson of a huge fundraiser. She calls on me to make a speech. I am only ten, but I have no stage fright. Nana’s eyes tell me anything I do will be perfect. The audience cheers for the two of us. “What a team,” everyone would say… What would they say if they saw us now?

I used to love to dress up in Nana’s flowing chiffon dresses and four-inch heels. Each outfit had its own little story – places she had worn it, people she had met. I would beg Nana to apply makeup on me just the way she did on her own porcelain face. “Take life one day at a time, honey,” she would chide me. “There’s no rush to be older. It’ll be here soon enough.” Her words echo in my mind constantly these days – the truth in them apparent. Nana has made me look at life a little differently now. For the first time I realize there really is an end. The people I love will die. I’m not sure I’m ready to accept that. Maybe no one’s ever ready

Most important, I want to help find answers to this disease. Maybe it will be through my interest in science; maybe through journalism. However I do it, I know it’s now my fight as well. It’s a race against time.

The memory: The two dancers reappear for the grand finale. A Chorus Line plays in the background. “One singular sensation, every little step they take…” They kick their legs over their heads. The audience applauds wildly. The two are together again… This is the Nana and me I choose to remember.