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“You two look alike. You must be sisters, “ she said. My mom and I smiled. Not sisters but close. Her brief interaction with us was hopeful. She acknowledged us, looked us in the eye and spoke. It was enough to make us weep.

My grandmother’s journey has been a challenging one. It’s hard to believe that just 3 years ago she was talking to us regularly and a few years before that was worried about forgetting things. But the grandma I knew and my mom grew up with was a strong, hard-working woman with a loud voice and a big smile.

When I think of my Kauai grandma as I fondly call her because she lives on the island of Kauai, I think of two people. B.A. was before Alzheimer’s and A.A., after the disease. Before Alzheimer’s, my grandmother was a busy bee who worked most of her life. If she wasn’t cleaning the house, she was cooking up a storm in the kitchen. I used to watch her rough hands shape golden pieces of sweet Japanese manju and remember the warmth of the stove, seeping out of the pot she used to mix the filling.

I loved my grandmother, but I couldn’t relate to her. She was a busybody with no time for play and her words to us were often abrasive. Most of the time she would tell us “to go bocha” (or take a bath) or yell at us to come to the table by saying, “kau kau time” (or meal time). I was the youngest and the slowest at everything so she liked to call me “lazy bones”. My cousin used to say that she’s not the typical grandmother, the warm and cuddly type who talked to their grandchildren sweetly, let them get away with anything and that would give lots of hugs. It’s not that she didn’t love us it’s just that it wasn’t her way.

It has been a long and difficult road for my family. I still remember times when my grandma would look at herself in the mirror and cry out in horror that she had aged or the heartbreak of hearing her recite the names of her siblings aloud so she wouldn’t forget them. But through it all, I have learned that true blessings can be disguised in unpleasant things.

Perhaps my fondest memories are of her getting excited when with childlike innocence she appreciated the vibrant colors of flowers or expressed happiness over playing with a baby. My grandmother’s experience transformed her into an outwardly warm and grateful person and in doing so she has also transformed me.

Once when I laughed in response to something she said, she grabbed my arm tightly and said, “I’m so glad you are here and we are laughing. It’s not good to just have long faces all the time. It’s so good to laugh. We all need to laugh, yeah.”

It’s a memory I will never forget and an unexpected lesson I will always be grateful for. It’s a reminder that no matter how dire the situation, the most important thing in life is love, laughter and being fully present in the moment.

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