An hour has passed, as I write this on Sunday evening (Aug. 11), that my fear has been confirmed.
Grandma is no longer with us.
As I shared in a column last month, the news that a longtime family friend, 72-year-old Hellen Cook, went missing, was tough to understand.
In my thoughts, I shared about how often reporters see tragedy unfold in our line of work, yet, it takes on such a different meaning when it takes a stab within in your own soul. That became very true in this situation.
Cook suffered from Alzheimer’s disease and quietly wandered away from her family’s lake property in Warsaw July 13.
In addition to knowing the Cook family through our tight-knit church family, I went to school with their grandkids.
Her granddaughter, Sara, and I have been friends since our days in fifth grade at our middle school out at Fort Osage in rural Jackson County. And in June, I was a co-maid of honor in her wedding, along with her twin sister, Rachel.
That was also the last time I saw Cook. It was at the wedding I really began to see how much of toll this disease was affecting her body and her mind.
I will probably always remember the meltdown Sara’s sister endured after Grandma Cook, as we called her, walked off with the keys to her car amongst the craziness of hair appointments and very last minute errands the morning of the wedding. It was just one of the many signs that Alzheimer's is very real disease.
Fast-forwarding two months since that Saturday in mid-June, it’s with a heart full of remorse I share the news that the remains of Cook were found Sunday afternoon.
The family received a phone call from the Benton County Sheriff's Department concerning “significant findings” that had resulted from a day of searching.
The family rushed to Warsaw to be met with news that made their hearts sink, but yet gave them an ounce of peace for the first time in the 29 days their loved one had been missing.
Over the course of last four weeks, Cook’s photo has been plastered and publicized across the country as family members and friends begged for answers about the elderly woman’s whereabouts.
As the days turned into weeks with no confirmed sightings or solid clues, we all knew in our minds her chance for survival was diminishing.
In her passing, Cook leaves behind a husband of 51 years, three children, 12 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.
Remarking in her grief, Sara wrote this about her grandmother following the finding of her remains. I hope it gives you a sense of what kind of woman she was like:
“Her petite body was full of large, fiery personality. She was extremely smart and even held the IQ record for several years in the county she grew up in. Grandma is also known for her caring love. She loved children and could always be found talking or playing with a child. Hellen was also an outstanding nurse, being a Director of Nursing for the latter 20 years of her nursing career. She was loved and admired by all who knew her. Her most memorable quality is her quick and clever wit. Her husband Howard says, ‘There has never gone a day when she hasn't made me laugh.’ Her most-used witty saying was, ‘That's Hellen with 2 L’s, and don't you shorten it!’”
In our sorrow, we are relieved to finally have an answer.
It’s not necessarily the answer we were wishing for, but one that will finally allow the family to experience some closure to such a tragic situation.
If I gained anything through this experience, I have a better sense of awareness and sensitivity, for Alzheimer’s disease, and I’m confident that the Cook family does too.
During this time chapter of their lives, the family made great efforts to bring overall awareness to this horrible mental illness that has plagued their family for four years.
Over the last month, the family nicknamed their search efforts to “Hellen’s Heroes,” and with the following they’ve built on social media, are planning to continue share their story, as well as advice, with others in hopes of preventing another family from going through the same nightmare.