Our ten-year-old son has autism. He’s had years of therapy and many people can’t even tell he has autism anymore. One thing even therapy can’t shake out him, though, is his ability to see the world as facts to be compared.

“Mom, there is something weird about Mamaw,” he announced in the car as we left a recent therapy session.

“What’s that?” I said.

“Well, she used to be more grandma-like to me. Now she just gets mad all the time.”

“Yeah, it’s the disease, honey. The Mamaw she used to be isn’t there anymore. She’s always loved you, though.”

We are all getting used to the idea that the woman we used to know, no longer exists. She yells at the kids and tells me I should whip them for acting up. She never would have said that before. In fact, we had a running joke that the kids could stand on her dining room table and she would applaud. They could do no wrong. At this point, Nicky and I have decided that we can’t leave her alone with the kids anymore, even in the same room. We just can’t predict how she would react if she got mad and we are in the unenviable position having to protect the kids from her.

As a daughter-in-law, I have always been suspect, so she would often fuss at me for telling the kids to behave, even if one of them spoke rudely to her and Joe or commandeered the TV while they were watching it. I distinctly remember my initiating incident on the day I married Nicky. Nicky has a daughter from a previous marriage that is grown now. She had a hard time accepting change and cried all through the wedding. Mrs. Huntington thought I had scolded her, which I had not, but she informed me, “This is her day, too!” I had actually been fussing at my son Jaime who nearly knocked the wedding cake onto the floor as he tore through the room as though chased by lions. I was put in my place on my wedding day as to how I fit in her hierarchy and let’s just say her grandkids had a higher station than the bride.

I stood there in my wedding dress, moments before vowing to become Mrs. Huntington’s daughter-in-law for as long as we both shall live, wondering what I was getting into. I wonder if I would have run if I’d had a crystal ball. No. I wouldn’t have. Nicky is the love of my life. I may have suggested we move to the other side of the country, though.

One thing is certain, she adored her grandkids to a fault. There was never a bad time for them to come over. They could spend the night, eat “fun meals” (as she called McD’s Happy Meals) in the TV room, leave their trash everywhere, hog the TV, you name it. I’d come back and she and Joe would be sitting on hard kitchen chairs watching a tiny TV in the kitchen while the kids lounged in recliners with nugget boxes everywhere.

“How were they?” I’d ask ready for the rundown of tantrums.

She’d smile serenely and say, “Oh! You’d never know they were here.” I often wondered what game she was playing. I know they were not angels. They were kids. Not that my kids were horrible, but kids are loud and run and disagree frequently. That’s just part of the territory. I wondered if she worried I wouldn’t bring them over if I thought they were a hassle to them. Over time I realized, no, she just loved having her grandkids there. She’d take Joe’s wallet and start digging for “Papaw Dollars” to give them as they left. They never left her house without a dollar or at least a pocket full of change. They could ask for anything she had and she would have given it to them.

Dementia has taken that from her. Perhaps it is the lack of recognition. Maybe that cozy, sunshine-filled room in her mind where the notion of grand-kids existed is no longer accessible. I see blips of it when they hug her and tell her they love her. She will smile again and tell them she loves them, too.

Most of the time, though, she makes faces of repugnance when they dart around or they are too loud. I can see judgement in her eyes as she looks over what our teenage daughter is wearing. If my daughter is in a hormonal mood and has a snappy tone, Mrs. Huntington will ask me if I’m going to allow that. Granted, I don’t like teen attitude either, but I do pick my battles, and often pulling my daughter in my lap and asking her if she is upset works far better than a tongue lashing.

The hardest thing for me to hear is when my autistic son is having a meltdown and she tells me I need to put a stop to that. “I’ll tell you what I’d do if he were my child.” Then she makes slapping gestures.

When my son is overwhelmed and having a core meltdown, he makes repetitive groans that are designed to get your attention. They are loud and would be perfect for announcing an impending tornado. In fact, they are. They are announcing an internal storm inside him and he needs help averting it. Before we understood autism, we tried to deal with him in a typical fashion of punishment. That worked as well as spanking the weather man as the tornado was bearing down. We now know how to help him de-escalate himself.

I am not certain she ever would have understood what autism is. It seems like the older generation can’t understand it. I do know that she would not have reacted that way before. In his fight or flight panic, he now sees her as unsafe. In fact, he helps her when she gets upset.

The connection in her mind that once placed the seal of approval on her grandkids’ little heads is severed. Now they are just random kids upsetting her routine. Dementia stole their Mamaw. They still love her but they are grieving the loss of being the apple of her eye. Before her mind went, she did teach my son unconditional love. She taught him that no matter how out of control you can get, you’re still infinitely important to the people who love you.

At my son’s therapy session yesterday, his therapist asked, “How’s it going with your grandma?”

He paused and then answered matter-of-factly, “Mamaw’s crazy, but that’s okay. We take care of her.”