By Kimberlea Chabot
In these dark days of winter, I am both frustrated and comforted by the mounds of snow covering everything. I long for warm days with trees in bloom and green grass below my feet while still wanting to remain in the stillness of winter. I wonder if she will know me in the next season. I can not know if she will be with us on that first day of spring, her birthday.
Dementia is the thief of memory. It steals whatever it wants and seems to randomly leave behind slivers of recognition and hope. These moments flash their brilliance and then disappear all too soon, like catching a snowflake in the palm of your hand and watching it melt before your eyes. It’s these little slivers that I want to hold onto forever. My grandmother can often recall a story from her past – and still, she has forgotten my name. I cherish the look in her eyes when she begins to tell me a tale from her yesteryear. I wish I could hear these stories forever. It’s selfish, I know, to want to keep it all standing still. To ask her to stay as a favor to me when she is suffering.
For many years, at every visit, my grandmother would want to tell me about the timeless pieces in her glass hutch each vase, plate, statue and photograph, with its own story. She would always start with, “I don’t know if I have shown you this before…” I have heard each tale a thousand times, but I still listen intently. What if this is the last time she remembers this part of her history – of my history? What if she tells me now and I can’t remember? I know my grandmother is afraid she will not be able to recall the moments going forward. Without her, I fear I will forget the past. So much of her memory is gone and soon the details will go with her.
Whenever I wrap myself up in planning out my linear life, I can’t help but think about my grandmother’s own story. She lived many different lives in her eighty-eight years. She buried three husbands. Each time, she adjusted to her new truth. At what point, though, did she think, “This was not what I signed up for? What happened to my plan?” After my grandfather passed away, a year into their retirement, living at a distance from family, she found herself very much alone. I remember her describing the years that followed as difficult days of waiting, wondering, and conversing with the dog, just to hear the sound of her own voice. It is this strength and resilience I admire most about my grandmother always offered up with a dry sense of humor and a no-nonsense attitude. Even in her darkest days, she never lost hope.
There always seems like there will be more time…how can we be out of time? Its like getting a new tube of toothpaste. In the beginning, you hardly pay attention to the amount you use. If it falls off the brush, it is washed away, wasted. With a carefree attitude, you just add more. There comes a point when you are suddenly aware that you are running low. Well, of course, there will be more, you think. You start using a little less. You are more careful, appreciative, thankful. You could squeeze a whole week’s worth out from a tube that appears empty. Soon, though, you acknowledge that you are nearing the end. You breathe a sigh of relief each time a little more is found. With what little you have left, you decide to make the most of it.
Time is a funny thing. When my grandfather died, I was in eighth grade- the same age as my oldest daughter is now. My grandmother lived another lifetime without him. I can still pick a tomato off the vine and have the aroma transport me back to standing in my grandparent’s garden, the rows of stalks high above my head. I want to ask her. Do you believe you will see grandpa again? Are you scared of dying?
I wonder before I arrive if these will be my last moments with her. Will she remember my name? Will she know me? I hold this space for her, even though every visit breaks open the crack in my heart a little more. I want to put distance between my sadness, to push away. I want to cushion the inevitable fall, to soften the blow, but I also want to soak up every ounce of who she is before she has to go.
This may be the day, I take her hand gently in mine and begin: You do not know me, but I am your granddaughter. You do not remember when you hung my paper plate fish project, like a fine piece of art. Did I ever tell you that it made me feel like a real artist? You do not remember all the summers I spent with you but do you remember if I said thank you for helping me navigate through my teen years? You do not remember dancing at my wedding, but did I stop to say how beautiful you looked in your pale pink dress? You do not remember holding your first great-grandchild. Did I tell you how blessed I felt to be able to see you beaming with pure joy, with my baby girl in your arms?
I know you struggle daily. You are frustrated at the legs that don’t listen, with the words that won’t form, and the memories that are fleeting. The only words of comfort I can think to whisper is, “Its okay. Its okay if you want to go, I understand”— all the while wanting to shout, “Please stay, I’m not ready. I’m not ready to let you go. I’m scared to be here without you. I’ve never known the world without you in it.” Before you go, tell me everything. Tell me again all the stories from the past. Tell me how to live without regret and how to always be brave and how to accept what life gives you.
But today is not that day. Today is a good day – and we are able to talk and laugh and solve world problems, as we have always done. Instead, when I see her today, I realize she has already given me what I am seeking. The way my grandmother lives has taught me how to have the courage to face each day with hope and the strength to keep loving with my whole heart. How she loves showed me everything else I need to know. Maybe it is less about deciding whether your tube of toothpaste is half-empty or half-full, but more about whether it was a tube well spent.
Photo by www.phyllismeredith.com