Things fall apart

Grappling with artificial sweetener and dementia.

By Liam Leddy

So I’ve got the diabetes, right? I haven’t had it for too long, but it’s there. Or are my beta cells not there? Is diabetes an entity, or a lack of one? Anyway, whatever, that’s not important. I’m also a college student who’s committed to more extracurricular hours than he can probably handle, who needs a little sum’n sum’n to get through the day sometimes. I mean caffeine, guys, not cocaine. Jeez. Anyway, given that I don’t really fancy myself a cappuccino-sipping, preppy, sissy hipster, but rather a hard-nosed, don’t-give-a-fuh, badass skater bro, I drink energy drinks instead of coffee. I like my raw energy to come in a sleek and sexy metal can, not a prissy porcelain mug. Because I’m cool like that. Well, not that cool, since I have to drink the diet ones, with the artificial sweetener. You know, ’cause of the diabetes.

Studies have shown that drinking out of tin cans probably doesn’t cause dementia later in life, and that drinking artificial sweeteners probably doesn’t either. But that doesn’t stop my dad from telling me, and it doesn’t stop me from worrying about it. But P-sets gotta get done, am I right?

Since before I was born, my father’s parents have owned a trailer home on a lakefront lot in East Texas. Lake Limestone was a staple of my childhood, the biggest reason I’m proud to be from Texas and not just from Austin. My sisters and I used to play in the lake all day, watch old movies my grandparents had until we fell asleep, and generally be blissfully happy. I remember fetching my dad beers from the trailer so that he didn’t have to get out of the lake. But at a certain point I started shaking them up so they’d explode in his face when he opened them, and he didn’t like that. I used to stand on the dock, too afraid to jump in the water, until my sisters would light my imaginary jet pack, and then I’d rocket off the end of the pier. There were good times to be had in that lake and in that trailer, and I’ll never forget those days. I hope.

All right, I promise this is all gonna come together soon, just give me a minute.

For as long as I can remember, my grandma drank diet, caffeine-free Pepsi out of a can, with a straw sticking out. She’s a woman my father tells me I’ve never truly met, that even when I was a toddler, she wasn’t all there. Indeed, another staple of that lake and that trailer was her saying “Grandma goofed.” “Sorry honey, I thought we had saltines and Ritz, but it looks like we only have saltines. Grandma goofed!”

Regardless of whether she was all there or not, she was there. But these days things are different. I went back to that trailer, back to that lake last summer, to see the old haunt, to see my grandparents. The lake had been devastated by a drought and was lower than I’d ever seen it. Jumping off the dock was a guaranteed broken leg. The trailer had fallen into disrepair, the siding peeling off, the polystyrene light fixtures so brittle that tapping them would spark a shower of plastic bits. The front porch, once a landscape filled with whatever my sisters and I thought up, had splinters poking out all over. And my grandma, once a sweet little lady prone to the occasional goof, didn’t know who I was. She thought I was my father, or my cousin, but never myself. She didn’t remember. I remember being saddened beyond words, but also inspired by her bravery, by her incredible courage to wake up every day and continue to exist knowing that she was a shell of what she once was. But I was also, and still am, selfishly and remarkably terrified.

I sip on these energy drinks to stay awake, to finish assignments, to ostensibly gain knowledge. But maybe it’s all for naught.

My grandma is doing worse now. She has trouble eating and staying awake for more than an hour a day. And I think about the woman whom I once knew, and the trailer and the lake that once were, and I have a hard time thinking that everything doesn’t just go to shit. It’s fine for someone to leave if they’re ready, and maybe even if they’re not, because at least they had what came before—at least they can remember the good days, or the bad days, or whatever they were. At least they remember. But my grandma doesn’t have that; she doesn’t have anything. She remembers my grandfather, but maybe soon she won’t. I’m still awed by her bravery, but that awe is more than overwhelmed by anger, and by an overwhelming sense of futility.

I think about that every time I start to fall asleep and reach for that tin can. I think about my father and if it’s going to start happening to him soon, if the intellect I’m awed by more than any other is going to start to slip. I think about whether and when it’s going to happen to me, and how much I’m accelerating the process by putting this can to my lips. And I think about my grandma, and injustice, and futility. And I just can’t help thinking that, no matter how it starts, everything goes to shit.

Liam Leddy is a second-year in the College majoring in economics.