Two pairs of eyes fixed on each other, neither blinking. One set, bright and blue, are full of life. Those eyes stare purposefully. The other set, not quite so bright or blue, are hollow and drawn and stare without choice.
“Robert, what are you doing?” The familiar voice shatters the silence and ends the contest in a draw.
“I don’t know Grandma,” Robert answers as he attaches himself to the old woman’s leg. "I was outside raking leaves and I saw Grandpa in the window. He seemed to be staring at me so I ran inside to see what he wanted.”
“He was looking out the window at you? That's so neat. You used to sit and watch him rake leaves for hours. Do you remember?”
“Yeah, I think so. Maybe he was watching me like I used to watch him. I tried to talk to him but all he did was stare. I thought maybe he wanted to have a contest.”
The idea catches the old woman as unexpectedly funny. She chuckles, but only for a moment. “No sweetie, Grandpa Edgar isn’t trying to win a staring contest,” she says as she picks up the young boy. “He is just searching his mind for memories.”
“Searching his mind? What does that mean?”
There is no good way to explain Alzheimer’s to a eight-year-old boy, but she instinctively knows it is a grandmother’s duty to try. “Come over here and I’ll tell you,” she says motioning for him to join her on the comfortable chair. The rocker, placed in the room to allow the old woman to spend time with her husband, is just big enough to accommodate a grandmother and her favorite little boy. He jumps into welcoming arms then settles down next to her. “You see, Robert, your mind is like a house.”
“A house, grandma?”
“That’s right. It’s kind of small when you are young. You don’t have many memories so you don’t need many rooms.”
“What color is it?”
“I don’t know? What color do you want it to be?” she responds with a grin.
“How about gray?”
“Gray it is.” She smiles. His choice is perfect. “Now where was I?”
“My house is small because I’m little.”
“Yes, that’s right. You have rooms for eating and sleeping, and another one for playing.”
“And a room for you, Grandma.”
“I hope so,” she responds as she tickles him a bit before continuing. “As we get older, we need to build more rooms.”
“Because we need a room for friends and one for school, and maybe even a room for a pet.”
“Can I have a dog in my house?”
“Robert, that’s up to your mom and dad.”
“Okay, but what about Grandpa? Why does he need to search for memories?”
“I was getting to that,” she says, enjoying his questions. “You see Grandpa has been building his house for a very long time. It has more rooms than you can count.”
“Like a mansion?”
“Yes, exactly, a lot like a mansion. He has rooms where he goes to remember his mom and dad and rooms for all his childhood friends. He has rooms for the horses he used to ride on the farm where grew up and rooms where he visits his friends from the army.”
“Why doesn’t he just go and visit them for real?”
“It's not as easy as it used to be. When you are young, all of your friends are close, sometimes within walking distance. When you get older, like Grandpa and me, your friends scatter to the winds. Many of them exist only in your memories.”
“So, some of Grandpa’s friends can only be found in his mansion? In his memories?”
“But why does he have to search for them? Why are they so hard to find?”
“Your grandpa’s memories are a lot like leaves in a strong wind—they blow quickly by and then they are gone. He can only see them for a few moments.”
“Like candy wrappers?”
“Yeah, last Halloween I filled my pockets with candy and went to a special spot at my school.”
“You went to school by choice?”
“It was Saturday, Grandma. Saturday is when school is cool.”
“Good point,” she says smiling.
“My school is practically in my backyard, and on Saturdays, there is no one around. There is a large cubby where I can hide. It has brick walls on three sides, and when it's blowing, the wind spins everything in a circle, kind of like a tornado.”
“A tornado?” she says, pretending to be afraid.
“It’s not really a tornado, but when I let one of the candy wrappers lose, it spun round and round.”
“That’s a room, Robert. You built it for a very special memory. Did you try to catch the wrapper?”
“No, I just watched it until mom called me in for dinner,” he answers matter-of-factly. “What memory is Grandpa looking for?”
“I'm not sure, Robert, you see your Grandpa’s house—”
“Yes, you're right. Your Grandpa’s mansion is not only very large, it's also very old. Sometimes as things get older, they don’t work as well as they used to.”
“Like my first bike. I loved that bike. My mom said I was too big for it, but I rode it until it broke.”
“It’s a lot like that,” she says, as she gives the little boy a hug.
“Grandpa Edgar loves his memories like you loved that bike, but it’s getting harder and harder for him to find them.”
“Does he remember me, Grandma?”
“You are one of his favorite memories. When you were born, from your very first day, he called you Pumpkin.”
“That was him? I remember being called Pumpkin, but I couldn’t remember by who?"
“It was your Grandpa, Robert, and when he stares at you, I know he is searching the rooms of his mansion, trying to find those memories, trying to find his Pumpkin.”
“I think I understand now, Grandma. Should I stare at him some more—will it help?”
“I’m sure it would,” she replies, as she starts to get up from the chair. “But right now it’s time for some lunch. How about bologna and cheese? That was your dad’s favorite.”
“Ok, Grandma, ” Robert responds, taking the old woman's hand to lead her to the door.
“Pumpkin.” The voice trembles, but the word is clear. The two of them turn to see a smile on Grandpa Edgar’s face, his eyes, the windows of his mansion, are now bright and welling with tears.
“He found me, Grandma!”
“He found you, Robert.”
“And the tears? Are the tears like rain at his mansion?”
“They sure are, Robert. Gentle rain and joyful tears.”