Friday, September 28, 2012

Spotlight: Melissa McGinnis

Each week we will be picking members to spotlight to tell their Alzheimer's story and why they are running in this year's New York City marathon. Check in each  Wednesday, Friday and Sunday for new updates on who will be spotlighted and get to know your teammates...(each person is picked at random) 

Over the years, I had often heard the old superstition “Deaths come in threes;” but had rarely stopped to consider the notion.  Unfortunately, over the last year, I found it to be true, as my family experienced a trifecta of loss in the months spanning Sept 2011-April 2012.  From the outside, few would draw a connection between the three, with one loss on my Dad’s side of the family (my Great Aunt Kate) and two on my Mom’s side (my Grandfather and my Grandmother).  However, as I reflect on the years that led to our recent season of loss, I see a very clear thread between the three:  Alzheimer’s (or dementia).  For that reason, when I run the NYC marathon (my first) on November 4 as a member of the “Run to Remember Team,” I really plan to run three small races, with one dedicated to my Great Aunt Kate, one dedicated to my Granddad Jim, and one dedicated to my Grandma Doris.

Part 1 - Miles 0.0-10.0:  A Brooklyn Block Party on Aunt Kate’s Behalf.  The first part of the marathon has to be dedicated to my Aunt Kate, not just because her battle with Alzheimer’s served as my first introduced to the disease, but because she spent many years of her life living in Brooklyn, the very borough we run through for miles 2-13.  During childhood family gatherings, I always remember my Aunt Kate laughing, sharing stories, enjoying the simpler aspects of life and jokingly planning “yard parties” with my mom. 

Aunt Kate first started exhibiting signs of Alzheimer’s disease in my teenage years.  It started small at first with an inability to remember where she had put her purse or her coat.  However, as time passed, the symptoms worsened, with periods where my Aunt would become convinced that her mother (who had long ago passed away) was waiting for her somewhere or that she needed to get to her job in the city.  Aunt Kate fought a >10-year battle with a disease that robbed us of her humor and her memory.  However, it was a battle that also taught us the power of great faith.  Kate forgot an abundance of things over those 10 years, but through it all, she could participate in Catholic mass, reciting prayers and singing hymns from memory.

Part 2 – Miles 11.0-20.0:  A Three Borough Tour for a Man Who Loved to Travel.  During the second ten miles, you cover the greatest number of boroughs, hitting Queens, Manhattan and the Bronx.  My Granddad would have appreciated that given his love of travel.  Along with his wife, my Grandfather managed to see 49 of the 50 states (only missing Oregon because his children were afraid for them to travel in the immediate aftermath of September 11), as well as several foreign countries. 

During my early 20’s, my grandfather began to exhibit signs of dementia, which many of us believe may have resulted from an undiagnosed/untreated stroke.  Slowly, a man who had always been quick with a joke, a kind word, a helping hand, began to withdraw and exhibit signs of confusion about people, places, and activities that had previously been very central to his daily life.  Given that I dealt with my Grandfather’s memory at an older age, I was more cognizant of the numerous small “deaths” our family endured with each little loss of his memory before his final passing on September 30, 2011.

Over my last few months training for this marathon, my thoughts have often returned to a concept raised during my Grandfather’s funeral service:

“I intentionally included the last part of verse 31 of chapter 12 in the second reading which then included Paul’s famous love chapter – all of chapter 13 of 1st Corinthians…“And I will show you a still more perfect way.” (NRSV)…Paul then give us “a still more perfect way” to live together – love…Love that is unconditional love, mature love, love that does not lose patience, this love that does not keep a record of right and wrongs, love that gives for the sake of the other asking nothing in return – this is the more excellent way to live life together…In the years ahead, when I think of Jim Snarr…I will think of a man who tried to live a more excellent way.”  - Rev. James Utt

It requires a mature love to stay committed to your spouse for nearly 64 years, as my grandfather did.  It requires patient love to allow your granddaughter to spend an entire Christmas vacation roller-skating around the downstairs of you house because she is just that excited about her new skates.  It further requires unconditional love (and humor) to see beauty in that child wearing the exact same outfit everyday that Christmas (a jean skirt with Tinkerbelle on it that he affectionately deemed the “Stinkerbelle” skirt).  It requires a love that keeps no record of rights and wrongs to find humor in your grandchildren sneaking around the house “playing pranks.”  And, it requires a love that gives for the sake of others to serve your country in WWII and your community as a member of numerous civic organizations, a volunteer for the Winchester Memorial Hospital Follies, and an active member of Grace Evangelical Lutheran Church.

Training for this marathon over the last few months has certainly taught me “a more excellent way” to run, which should prove helpful in powering me through miles 11-20.  I can only hope that in the years to come, I emulate my grandfather in finding “a more excellent way” to live. 

Part 3 – Miles 21.0-26.2:  The Fight to the Finish for a Woman Who Taught us All a Little Something About Being a Fighter.  From a doctor’s perspective, my grandmother passed away April 2012 from her second battle with cancer.  From my perspective, she died of a broken heart, six months to the day she last saw my grandfather at the viewing we held before his funeral service.  So what does that have to do with the “Run to Remember” cause?  My grandparents stood by each other for nearly 64 years of marriage, raising three children, loving six grandchildren, traveling the world, and building a good life in Winchester, VA.  For the last 5+ years of that marriage, my grandmother loved and cared for my grandfather daily as his memory and health faltered, helping him maintain as much normalcy as possible in his daily routine. 

A few weeks ago, in a discussion about the marathon, an acquaintance told me, “You run 20 miles, and then you run the marathon.”  I have no doubt that the last 6.2 miles of the NYC marathon will ultimately prove more a test of willpower than a test of physical fitness.  It feels fitting to dedicate that final fight to the finish to the woman who taught two generations of strong-willed, driven women to fight for what they want.  Those final miles honor her for her first [victorious] fight against cancer years ago and her fight to keep my grandfather out of assisted living and serve as his primary caretaker for as long as physically possible.

I cannot wait to cross the finish line on November 4 in honor of these three amazing family members and all of those who suffer from the effects of Alzheimer’s.

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