Dried rosemary looks like chopped pine needles. I sprinkle them on course coffee grounds for my morning cup. I add rubbed sage while water boils in the microwave for me to pour over the culminating mixture of what I hope will prevent a future with a skull-full of amyloid plaque. Neither the dried rosemary or rubbed sage compare to their fresh equivalents, but it’s winter and my clay garden pots are covered in snow.
Rosmarinic acid, which exists in the oil of rosemary and much more in sage, is supposed to help the brain in ways that, ironically, I cannot remember. I do remember that an increase of so-called “tip-of-the-tongue” incidences can be an early sign of Alzheimer’s, which I remember every time I can’t complete a sentence. I panic a little each time.
Maybe the Rosmarinic acid acts as an anti-oxidant for the myelinated sheath of neurons so they aren’t pummeled by the free radical oxygen molecules that fly around in our bodily system like comets that crash into Siberia. Maybe the acid thins my blood so that it can better flow within the vessels of my brain. Maybe I’m right about all of this but it’s not exactly why Rosmarinic acid will keep my tongue from becoming a slab of uncommunicative concrete.
My coffee routine is built from memories of information, not of the information itself. We are always experiencing information as it exists and reforming our neural circuitry based on that information. Then we can act out that neural circuitry just like a self-playing piano. When it’s around 9:30 AM, something like a switch in my brain goes On and I’m in the kitchen with my canister of coffee beans and a French-press.
My coffee routine is just one script of a complex series of other routines with beliefs that equate to, what I collectively call, my Anti-Alzheimer’s Rituals. The exact origin of why I refuse to eat any animal proteins after lunch is not remembered. Don’t ask me. I exercise so my body stays fit, but I’m doing it more for my mental health. Sometimes I feel like an agnostic church-goer who prays hoping that it’s doing some kind of good, but knowing that maybe it’s not. There is a chance my rosemary and sage coffee is pointless because the herbs are dried, and maybe by drying them their oils are destroyed. I have tried to research this and have found nothing, and nothing leaves me space for a faith that I’m either helping, or not hurting my brain, and then I worry that the dried herbs might have compounds that morph into things that are incredibly damaging.
Before the rituals, I believed that Alzheimer’s was an inevitable probability. That inevitability was called genetics. This idea of genetics is still muttered when a son turns out to be an alcoholic, a mom becomes diabetic, or when a grandfather develops osteoporosis. But genetic probability is just that, a likelihood, and the probability of that likelihood is not stable. Genes, as it was taught over a decade ago, proved a type of determinism. At their Godly height, genetics had the power to explain away the potential for changing probability, but genes morph and mutate. Their millions of potential functions can be made active or inactive, and they be altered based on experience, exposure, and by lab technicians. Once I learned that genes did not equate a stable probability I began my personal anti-Alzheimer’s research. My rituals are an attempt at nothing less than genetic modification.
When I make my coffee, I breathe deep the vapors from the beans that become environmental cues for me to ponder death by neurodegeneration. I’m nothing near a sommelier of coffee or Alzheimer’s, but the chemicals my nose process tells my body that I need to fully wake up because work and death are coming. But don’t worry, the hint of rosemary and sage tells me, at least you might not die that way.
The memories of my grandmother are a powerful node that my brain uses like cairns to map old and new memories of information associated with Alzheimer’s. By repeating a behavior that connects me to her, I reinforce all the neural circuitry that makes up my mental network around her. Remembering her is like walking a path over and over again until a trail is pounded into the earth.
The microwave beeps, and I take out the glass measuring-cup of bubbling water. I pour the water over the beans in my French press. I read somewhere that a French press extracts the most oil from ground coffee, and it’s the oil that has anti-inflammatory properties that directly affect the brain. The water hits the grounds and herbs with a quiet hiss. I pour in a clockwise spiral and froth grows above the mixture. I let it all— the beans, the herbs, the water— sit for a minute.
My grandma was an elementary school teacher, and an avid rock hound. She scavenged rocks by climbing seaside cliffs, wandering deserts, and hiking mountains. When Mount St. Helens blew in 1980, she took a chopper tour around the eruption, and she collected jars of fine ash to be sent to her grandkids.
When I visited her, she always had rocks, crystals, and minerals to share. Her face was so narrow her long smile seemed to touch her cheek bones when she walked across a room with yet another box of rocks to share. I loved to watch her hold up geodes and speak about them with incredible passion. She knew the lives of these rocks, how they were formed, how they came to light from under their earthen tombs, and what significance they played in her own life in how she acquired the rocks. Rocks gave her a purpose for wandering the crisp cinders of ancient volcanic landscapes like Craters of the Moon, and to risk herself in ocean-side caves along the Oregon coast. When she touched rocks, they touched her.
I listened to her lessons on rocks only because of her enthusiasm. Rocks bored me fast after my first impression. I had no questions for the rocks, and it was fine by me if the rocks kept their stories to themselves. When I asked my mom why Grandma cared so much about rocks, she said that Grandma was fascinated by their origins.
“What do you think made this rock,” my grandma would ask me.
The answer was always time.
I think she mistook my intense listening for a shared interest because she gave me more rocks than any other grandkid. She also gave me books on rocks that I never read. No matter what she said, to me, rocks were either pretty or dull, and that’s as far as I cared to comprehend them.
I remember the last time she talked rocks with me was in her home before we moved her. She was preparing for chemo, and it was uncertain if she would survive. In her home, she described the rocks she was planning on giving to me. My favorite was a large pink quartz in the shape of a rhombus and the size of a month-old puppy. She polished her rocks and cut many of them herself. Her entire garage was full of boxes of rocks that would never be perfected by her hands.
Her favorite were to be mine.
Sitting there, as she talked rocks, I was nearly nine years old, and even then I knew she wanted to give her collection away because she was afraid of death. Her collection was her legacy, but not in the same way that money is transferred from bank accounts. Her collection was more like a box of journals full of ideas and stories that had taken her attention over her lifetime.
I hear some of the tales of my grandmother’s rock collecting from her husband, my grandpa. He tells me about how she would make him suddenly stop the car while they were out driving to examine a field for rocks.
“I was her pack mule,” he says. “She’d sometimes have me carry a sack, and she’d stuff that sack till rocks fell out. She would find these dull, boring stones in mud. I’d ask her, ‘Why the heck do you want that?’ Then we’d take them home, she’d wash them, clean them, give them a polish or cut them in half, and they would shine something amazing in our living room.”
She became so well-known for her rocks that she set up a huge display once a year and all of the 4th grade students in her town were bussed to see them at her school.
What interested me far more than the rocks was my grandma as a person. I loved the joy she transmitted every summer when she visited me. Her bright, cheerful voice was powerfully affective, and perhaps more than any other person as a child, she made me a feel the most instant of love and warmth from another adult.
Emotional experiences, like information, also get mapped into our mental circuitry.
After the minute, I stir my anti-Alzheimer’s brew, and then I set a timer for another three minutes.
My Grandma grew up in a somewhat wealthy family that disinherited her after she married a poor boy. She was one of the first women to work for the National Park system. Though her parents were initially opposed to the idea, they thought their daughter would get over her crush if she spent some time away and so they agreed to let her work at Zion National Park in the summer after she graduated from high school. She returned still madly in love with Grandpa, and also madly in love with rocks. Grandpa drove down to Zion and took Grandma on collection expeditions that she planned in advance. When she returned to her parents, she had her first box of rocks, and a plan to marry her rock-mule. She enrolled at the local university around the 1940’s, and soon after graduating she went back to college to one of the first if not the first woman at Idaho State University to pursue a Master’s in Education.
The most common advice to staving off Alzheimer’s is to keep learning, but despite all of her mental work, it wasn’t enough to save her from a hardening brain and eventually waking up one night next to a man who she forgot was her husband.
When my Grandma became ill, they moved closer to their daughter, my mother. My mom did not believe in hiding my Grandma’s illness from me. I was twelve at the time of the move, and I continued to see my Grandma’s health decline for two years before she developed a severe case of pneumonia and was taken off of life support.
I remember the good days of her Alzheimer’s. We would wait in her living room, which was shielded by ultraviolet film that made the room purple and pink. The shielding prevented eye strain which had been a problem ever since she had eye surgery for glaucoma.
She walked out with a big smile.
“Is that Kevin,” she’d almost yell.
“It’s me, Grandma.”
“Kevin, I’m so happy to see you.”
“I’m happy to see you too.”
This was our routine. I never feared my Grandma despite her failing physicality and unstable mental condition. Her face was half inanimate because of a stroke she had before her move, and the drugs she took made her nauseous to the point that she could barely eat. Her veins and bones protruded along her entire body. Despite her sometimes eerily hollow eyes on the bad days, I was mostly afraid of her wet cheek kisses. I grew up in a family that rarely touched or said pleasant things to one another. Hugging only happened at funerals. In general, her affection both physical and emotional were odd to me, but I let her kiss my cheeks because it produced such an obvious happiness in her that made me feel joy. This is what I remember most intensely when I wait for my coffee to brew.
On the days when she was not doing so well, I stood by her bedside, and she held my hand.
Near the end, she would call me by other names, but she looked rejuvenated in small ways when she recognized my presence. I would walk into her darkened bedroom, and she would be lying in bed with a humidifier on full power. Sometimes I was afraid that I would find her dead, but then she would slowly open her eyes and slowly smile. Then she stirred a bit despite the brittleness that time rendered upon her.
I never knew, before I arrived to visit, whether or not she would be having a good day or a bad day. Would she be up for sitting in the living room? Would she be sedated? I also never knew what kind of a story Grandpa would have for me and my mom. Would he tell me about how Grandma found arrowheads everywhere she hiked, or would he tell me how Grandma would suddenly forget where she was and scream?
I suppose what frightens me the most about Alzheimer’s is not the loss of memory, or the toll it takes on the body, but its unpredictability. All of us move towards a hardness as we age, but it is not the hardness of a diamond, it is a hardness of chalk. Gemstones formed over millennia know little of our individual passing lives. I know that redheads, which I am and my grandma was, are far more susceptible to Alzheimer’s, but it’s still unpredictable when Alzheimer’s will develop in someone. My grandma may have been in her late fifties or early sixties, which means I’m halfway there in my lifespan.
I want to find causes to justify the probability that engulfed her. Could it have been increased by her diet, her shelf of supplements, or environmental exposures like the fertilizer plant in town that was known to drain into the river she swam in? Was the probability increased by the suspected radiation from the nearby nuclear facility and nuclear weapons testing site a bit further away, or was it an effect of flying a helicopter through the Mt. Saint Helen’s eruption?
I stir my French press before tipping its brown liquid into a cup. Oil from the herbs and coffee swim on top. The coffee tastes better with herbs, so even if my brew does nothing to prevent the neurons in my brain from tangling, degenerating, being damaged, or deprived of oxygen, at least I can enjoy their sweet earthiness.
The rocks that were promised to me were donated by my mom’s unknowing sister who helped Grandma move. Like me, my aunt had no idea the incredibly large collection of rocks were of much value, sentimental or otherwise. She took the boxes of rocks to an elementary school and donated them in Grandma’s memory.
My mom once told me, “Your Grandma gave a rock to every kid in her class every year.”
Her rocks continue to rewire the neural circuitry of children at some school. They are far more useful there than if they had stayed boxed up in my closet. For me, my memories of her are more precious. The Earth’s past energies and chemistry live on in these beautiful gems, and so it is that my grandma lives on in me.
The skull is like the outer rock of a geode that hides its crystals inside itself. A brain with Alzheimer’s becomes more crystal with age, and like a crystal that traps light, a brain with Alzheimer’s traps neural electricity. Neurons fire in the brain, but that energy does not always reach the mouth. It’s wrong to assume that a person with Alzheimer’s who does not speak is also not thinking.
Next to a jar of Mt. Saint Helen’s ash, a crumpled piece of paper sits on the piano at my mom’s house. Its grooves, bumps, and corners were known to my grandma’s fingers that pressed and shaped the paper. In the last few months when her mind was truly failing and she had lost her speech, she gave us these crumpled balls each time we visited. It reminded me of her rocks.
Her ritual of giving rock-like paper balls stayed with her long after she forgot the names of the people around her. Although she lost the ability to show emotion near her death, I believe that my grandma felt some kind of internal firing of joy by handing over these crumpled pages.
Kevin J. Kelley grew up in the high desert countryside of Nampa, Idaho. His writing has appeared in Crixeo, Eastern Iowa Review, and Thin Air Literary Magazine. He holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Wyoming, and he currently teaches and writes in Denver. Find him at authorkevinkelley.com, or follow him on Twitter @KKelley_author.