Three years ago, when my oldest son was almost three and my youngest was just six-months old, we sat at my grandpa’s deathbed. My parents were there, too, and my brother, my husband, and my grandma. We held his hand, rubbed his forehead, talked to him in that way you do when deep down, you want to believe what you’re saying can be heard.
He was 89 years old, and hanging on. But he would not recover.
So my brother and I leaned in close. And now I can’t remember who said it, but one of us promised him, “We’ll take care of grandma. It’ll be ok.”
And he died.
I remember wondering if he had needed to hear that. He had contracted polio when he was four years old, and had a bum leg since then, so my grandma had spent much of their 59 married years caring for him. He was always in good spirits but needed help getting around, and she prided herself on being a good wife. He taught music in the local schools and she worked as an administrative assistant in the elementary building. He directed the church choir and she kept its library of sheet music and organized its holiday parties. Her love and care and life were all wrapped around him, always. I didn’t know what she would do with him gone.
And I thought – mistakenly – that that was his concern, too.
It became clear, soon after he died, that she could not live alone. She stopped eating. She stayed awake all night, afraid to go to bed alone. She taped newspaper over her windows, locked the doors, checked to make sure they were locked, unlocked them and locked them again, and then sat up in her red armchair until the sun rose.
So we moved in, my husband and I and our sons. We packed up some clothes and toys and found space for them at my grandma’s house. It wasn’t a completely selfless move: our house had been on the market, but not selling; we’d been looking for a place closer to the city, where our jobs are, and living with her saves us each about 20 minutes on our commute. And we have an extra adult now, an extra story-reader. I can hop in the shower and not worry that the kids will have each other’s eyeballs torn out by the time I re-emerge.
But living with her has also helped me understand, I think, why my grandpa was holding on so tightly. I didn’t know, before I moved in with her, that my grandmother is suffering from dementia. None of us knew, except, presumably, my grandfather.
There were strange clues when we first moved in – eccentricities. Most of them I attributed to grief. After living for six decades with your love, life isn’t the same when he’s gone. So when I went to check out the terrible smell coming from the preheating oven and found a bunch of bananas, I was…intrigued…but not really suspicious. When she’d make appointments and forget them, and even get defensive, claiming she’d never made them in the first place, I understood how powerful her sadness was, how it could force out all else from her mind. When she’d pull out old pictures and misidentify the people in them, calling her sister her mother, her husband her brother, her grandson her nephew, I figured, she’s old. This is what happens.
Now, the conversation cycles are the hardest. She’ll ask a question, and I’ll answer. And then she’ll ask it again. Maybe ten minutes later, maybe two. Maybe right on the heels of the first time. Or she’ll make up lies. I don’t know that she understands them to be lies. I think they’re just her making whatever sense she can of the world around her, or even of her day.
“I was about to get dinner on the table,” she’ll say. “I had it all laid out right here when… the phone rang… and I had to tend to something, and then, well, I figured I’d better start all over…” She hasn’t made dinner in the three years we’ve lived here. She can no longer follow a recipe and she doesn’t trust herself without one. But it’s important to her to think that she could, even that she was just about to, and maybe she will tomorrow.
And I have learned, from my children, how to live with this. They have modeled grace to me. They never find it necessary to point out her limitations. And they are endlessly patient with her. (Not with me, mind you. But with her, they are.)
She’ll ask my oldest, “How was kindergarten?”
And he’ll say, “Good. It was library day. I got a book about snakes.”
She’ll nod, and then ask, “How was kindergarten?”
And he’ll say, “It was ok. We had to have recess inside because it was raining.”
And she’ll nod, and then ask, “How was kindergarten?”
And he’ll say, “Good. Me and Mason got to play the drums in music class this morning. They were so loud!”
I remember thinking once that maybe my children’s memory span is as short as my grandma’s – maybe they don’t hear the repetition, and that’s why they’re not frustrated by it. But then, at the dinner table, during one of these cycles, my oldest shot his eyes at me. Just for a second. But I caught his brief glance, and I knew he knew. I waited. I held my breath. And he looked away from me, and back at her, and answered the same question again.
Blessed are the pure in heart.
This is not something I am teaching them. I’ve been careful, actually, not to give them too much instruction, because of that terrible tendency children have to blurt out exactly what you don’t want them to: “mommy says we should be nice to you because you don’t know what you’re saying.” But somehow they know anyway – they know to be gentle. They know it’s better to listen again to the same Berenstain Bears adventure than to whine, “But Great-Grandma, we just read that one.” They know to smile and say “yay!” when she promises them she’ll make a cake tomorrow, but they never ask when none appears. They have not yet learned the corrosive self-importance that necessitates their being impatient, pointing out faults, correcting mistakes. Maybe because, so far, the world has been pretty gentle with them, they are able to be gentle with her.
And when I let myself pay attention, they are teaching me how, too. Their kindness throws my own insensitivity into sharp relief. It makes a mockery of those beatitudes that seem to govern so much of my life (you know, Blessed are those who are always right. Blessed are those who don’t waste time. Blessed are those who get sh*t done.). Because really, there is something kind of beautiful about an entire dinner conversation that revolves around that day’s kindergarten class, or about hearing the same storybook twice in a row, or about the kind of pride an old woman feels thinking about the cake she’ll bake… tomorrow.