This article was written by Cullen Ormond. She is a native of Ithaca and current graduate student at New York University’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute. She lives in New York, N.Y. with her pug Peanut. In this piece, Ormond writes about her grandfather, Robert Ironside Williamson. Williamson, a native of Ithaca, N.Y. passed away on Thursday, Nov. 15, 2018, after a long battle against Alzheimer’s disease. He leaves behind his wife, Grace, who is 83, and five children. A memorial and celebration at the Ithaca Country Club will be held in the spring of 2019.
78. Happy and healthy. 165 pounds. A creature of habit, waking every morning at to walk his two pugs, Jesse and Bruzer, as the inviting sun rose over the Florida beaches. The man I am describing was an enigma – the simplest, yet most complex being I have ever had the privilege of knowing. The man I am describing is my grandfather.
A native of New York, Robert Ironside Williamson, who I lovingly refer to as Bopie, endured the bitter winters but also endured the earth-shattering effects of the equally bitter Great Depression. The circumstances he withstood determined who he was – physically as well as characteristically. His eyes, icy blue like a lake that has just frozen over – tranquil and cryptic all at once. His voice, husky and animated; a voice that makes you believe anything is possible; a voice which promises you the world. His speech, deft and precise, the kind of speech that makes all who were listening follow the dip and rise of every vowel and consonant. His clients might have thought he was a cold man with his fierceness and dedication to his work, but to his grandchildren, he radiated warmth. As children, his presence at family functions was electrifying. The children would gather in a posse around him and yearn for a warm embrace or a folktale passed down from his father.
I spent most of my childhood years engrossing myself in my grandfather’s being. There was something within him that I have never found in anyone else. A glimmer of perpetual wonder. I puzzled him with questions about everything; his love for my grandmother, his childhood. I’d even ask him to sing to me. I was obsessed, seizing any tidbit of information I could. With all of my pestering over the years, I learned many things about him. First, and most importantly, that his mind was his greatest and most valuable weapon. Second, that he would do anything to have the ability to exercise it.
The Great Depression bruised his family. His parents were immigrants from Scotland and did not have the monetary resources to send him to a university of his fitting. I imagine him reciting one of his infamous phrases, coolly and a little bit spry, “I can’t complain, nobody listens,” as he made the choice to enlist in the Navy. This decision, like all of Bopie’s decisions, was calculated. He knew that once he was released, he would have a scholarship to the university of his choosing.
His plan worked, unsurprisingly. Bopie chose to attend Cornell University and continued on to attend Cornell Law School. His dedication to academics allowed him to graduate a year before his fellow colleagues and hurled him into his career. He proved to be a successful lawyer as the respected owner of his own law practice, and he was the Tompkins county attorney for 25 years. He’s the kind of man that makes you proud of where you came from. When I was a child, I would say to whoever would listen, “one day I’m going to be a yaw-yer.”
His mind was important to him, and he cared a lot about my mind as well, always encouraging me to read more, listen more, to push myself. He was a great lawyer, but an even better grandfather. In my family, there are 14 grandchildren, but he always managed to make me feel special and important.
I’ll always remember his visits. I would wake up at 6:45 and wait outside his door, patiently awaiting the sound of his slippers scrubbing against the carpet, his usual shuffle to the bathroom. As soon as I heard him, I’d dash to the kitchen and begin making him breakfast. To say the very least, I was a poor cook – creating piles of syrup-drenched pancakes, piles as tall as a table lamp. Sometimes is was blackened toast, which he would chisel through while assuring me, “It’s the best toast I’ve ever had! You should work at Mel’s Diner.” I would serve him his black coffee (to match the toast) and a glass of pulp-free “o-jay,” always wondering to myself how that combination ever tasted good. My cooking was comparable to if a monkey had cooked it, maybe a monkey would have been better, yet he never complained. He and I would clean the dishes together, and sometimes I would find a dollar bill hidden underneath his New York Times as a sign of gratitude. He always managed to make me feel appreciated. I learned a lot about my grandfather during these breakfasts.
One morning as we were cleaning the dishes together, my awkward, petite hands sent one of my mother’s favorite glasses shattering onto the hardwood floor beneath us. The fright of my mother’s reaction began to take over; I began scrambling, pleading with my grandfather not to tell her and cleaning the shards of glass, which eventually led to a cut in my hand. He halted my breakdown, cleaning up the glass and assuring me that my secret was safe with him. I know looking back now that this incident was minute in the grand scheme of life. But, I learned in that trivial moment an important fact, that I could trust my grandfather. I will forever cherish those mornings, whispering and sharing hushed laughs before the rest of the family had awoken. It was just him and I. It was as if time froze, and the world stopped spinning. It was just him and I against the world.
His best characteristics stemmed from the love he had for his wife and five children. He cherished my grandmother, Grace, so much. He was a 38-year-old bachelor went they met, and he did not bat an eyelash when she confided that she had four children from a previous marriage. He acted as a second father figure, without attempting to replace the children’s biological father. He respected the children’s relationship with their father and upon his death he promised to carry the responsibility of showing the children guidance and love. When my mother was born, they named her Robyn, after Bopie.
79. Forgetful and paranoid. 150 pounds. He did not wake up at 7:30 to welcome the morning sun anymore; instead he slept longer and became ill-tempered with those he loved. He was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. A disease that would soon take away his mind, his memories, the things he cherished most. It’s a disease that is the sixth leading killer in the United States. It does not have a cure. The doctor assured him that because of his resilient mind, the progression of the disease would be slow. He denied the disease, this could not happen to him. He was wrong. The Alzheimer’s came crashed into his mind as a wrecking ball crashes into a sturdy, durable building.
When I first heard the news of my grandfather’s illness, I remember it being a warm, no-humidity-California kind of day. I had spent the day outside, scampering through the dry, grassy fields behind our house, acquiring several bug bites. I was the freest I have ever been that day, I had a family who loved me, grandparents that were healthy, not a single care. But that was before. It was before my world, full of sundrenched, carefree days became an arctic winter full of chaos and confusion. I entered my house, and immediately something was different – where was the familiar aroma of my mother’s cooking? Where was the familiar sound of The Eagles song “Hotel California” that used to seemingly echo out of our walls. I found my mother at the kitchen table accompanied by a bottle of wine and a box of Kleenex. Alzheimer’s. A word that was foreign to me. Connected to my grandfather. A person that was far from foreign to me. I did not know what this cacophony meant, but based on my mother’s reaction, I knew it was wicked. As my mother began to explain what the beast was, my hands began to sweat and tears began to fill to the brim of my eyelids. My grandfather would eventually forget. Forget me, forget my family, forget how to do simple tasks such as swallowing. I denied the disease, this could not happen to him.
I have often wondered when the mind leaves, where does it go? Does it slip out of a cracked window in the middle of the night abandoning the body it has inhibited, or does it creep to some foreign recess of the body to take its final rest? He began to change through the years. During one of our breakfast rituals, he asked me in a casual manner to tell him how old he was. I responded that he was 85. He looked at me and said, “okay.” Five minutes later, he asked me in a casual manner to tell him how old he was. I looked into his deep blue eyes, eyes that once had me swimming in their depths, there was nothing there. There was no trace of him. Things had officially changed. I answered him politely and retreated to my bedroom, begging whoever decides a person’s fate above to stop hurting my grandfather. I begged through muffled tears.
89. Different. 100 pounds. He never knew what time it was and slept most of the day. He did not know who I was anymore. He did not know who anyone was anymore. Sometimes he thought he was German and refused to speak English. He covered himself with an amalgamation of blankets and instead of sporting fancy suits, his signature look was a pair of sweatpants and three sweaters, even in the humid Georgia heat. He lived in a retirement community with 24-hour care, seven days a week. The breakfasts we used to shared had to be mashed in a blender and spoon fed to him because he no longer knew how to swallow. He didn’t remember Mel’s Diner, or his favorite phrase, “I can’t complain, nobody listens.” My grandmother became depressed with the loss of my grandfather. It was a loss. She yearned for their golden years together, and she resented him for the loss of them. In a hurried conversation, my grandmother once confided to me that she sleeps to dream of the love they once shared. She missed her husband.
Alzheimer’s was my grandfather’s mental death. For around ten years, physically, he was there, but mentally and emotionally he was a vegetable. I lost the majority of my Bopie. His mind had gone. This kind of disease is malicious and sneaky, playing on your deepest emotions. It is ambiguous. At least the literal heart-stopping death is final, the only option is to die. A death of a person who is still alive is hard to comprehend.
Sometimes, in the quiet solitude of the night, or when I am driving down a tree-covered winding road, I wonder about my grandfather. I wonder if he could still remember, who would he be? Would he be proud of me? Would he still comfort me and hold me when I am upset? I want more than anything to reach him. I would give anything to know he is still there, to hear him call me his “Polynesian princess,” or to even hear him say my name. I want to know I’m worthy of remembering or to know why I wasn’t.
Then, I never knew what to expect when I was around Bopie. I used to cling to the entirety of his being. I clung to the tiny glimmer of hope Alzheimer’s allows me. I was solely dependent on that exceptionally rare twinkle in his eyes or hearing him order his signature drink, “a vodka on the rocks with a twist.” It is selfish, but I find myself jealous of something so simple as an alcoholic beverage. I ponder why a tall, crisp glass of alcohol took precedence over me.
Alzheimer’s disease attacked a person who did not deserve it; it attacked my greatest friend, and that is something that is unforgiveable. It took away his ability to absorb information, to have a conversation longer than 30 seconds, but most importantly, it took away him. I religiously question, why do bad things happen to good people? A person who valued his mind so much, did not deserve to lose it so fiercely. I must remind myself that deep down, he is still my grandfather and nothing can take that away. Through all the traumatic events that have occurred, I have gained one valuable token of remembrance, which is that my Bopie was a fighter.
Featured image: Robert, at the age of 89. (Provided Photo)