Love beyond memory

I’m home from the visit to see my family, which was good but also really sad. I got to spend some time with my grandma. Most people don’t really get to know their grandparents the way I’ve had the chance to know Becca. Most people also don’t call their grandparents by their first names. But my grandma was different. For my whole childhood, she lived just across town, and I saw her everyday. When I started school, I rode the bus to her house after school every day. In the summer breaks, I was over at her house even more. We were together for every holiday. She made me Christmas dresses, and elaborate Easter baskets. She was always very much a part of my immediate family, and of my everyday life, even before we all moved in together when I was in high school.

My grandma Becca has always been this fierce, independent, sometimes fearsome lady, who loved us dearly but didn’t have a whole lot of patience. What she had was resilience, and devotion, and love, and more determination than anyone I know. Which wasn’t always a great thing…we butted heads a lot when I was in high school. My sister and I grew up spending days at her house after school, weekends when our parents were out of town, long summers when we went swimming at the neighborhood pool and she gave us money for the snack bar, bike rides around the neighborhood, trips to the ice cream shop. She was more like a third parent than a grandparent, and was without a doubt the most frustrating person I knew. If she didn’t like what I had to say, she would put her fingers in her ears and sing. If I got on her nerves, she would threaten to “bap me one,” which she occasionally did. But when I was sick, she would make me chicken noodle soup and peanut butter toast and serve me a flat ginger ale. She drove me to flute lessons, to tennis lessons, to soccer and to art class. She came on family vacations with us, all driving across the country in a minivan. She taught me to sew, made many of my dresses, cooked me dinner and cared for me after I had surgery on my foot. When I had an exchange student for a summer, we stayed with my Grandma Becca across town, because she had more room for us. Becca made us dinner every night and was a gracious hostess. She has always been a gracious hostess.

When I was seventeen, it became clear that she was developing dementia, and we all moved in together. I can’t say that I loved living with her that year. She was in the combative, anxious stage of dementia, something I didn’t yet understand, and I felt like my grandmother had been replaced by someone who didn’t like me very much, and who certainly didn’t want me in her home – something she told me almost every day that year. In an act of devotion and love, my parents proceeded to care for her at home for the next 13 years, through all of the stages of dementia, up to the point that caring for her at home became impossible. And so she moved to the assisted living, where she did really well for a while, and then not so well, and where I went to visit her last week. The lady I visited looks a bit like my fierce, tough, vibrant grandma. My grandma’s grandma, perhaps. She is very sweet, and very sick, and knows that she loves me, even when she doesn’t know who I am. And I love her, whoever she is on any given day that I visit her, whatever era she is revisiting in her voyage through time here at the end of her life. She tells me stories about the Great Depression, about World War II. Mostly she says “help me, I’m so sick,” and “I don’t want to eat dinner, I already did.”

Dementia is a different kind of loss, a separate kind of grief, but it is loss and grief nonetheless. I am so grateful for the time I get to spend with her, and as she drifts through her old memories, I think about mine. I remember those summer trips to the pool 25 years ago, and the flower-covered swim cap she wore to protect her perm from the water, the skirtsuit she’d wear as she waded out into the pool to keep me safe. I remember the trips with her to visit my granddad’s grave, our weekly pilgrimages to put flowers by the wall where he is entombed. I remember the lemon chicken she would make for us on the nights my parents had to work late, and the way she would always pretend not to notice that I had eaten all of the candy out of the candy dish again, and the way she would chase us out of the house when we rough-housed, telling us that if we were going to act like animals, we had best do it outdoors. I remember painstakingly piecing together my first “quilt,” a girl and a tree on a purple floral background, which Becca carefully sewed on her sewing machine. I have it still. I remember her teaching me to type on her old typewriter. I remember all of the things that she has forgotten, a whole lifetime together in which we drove each other up the wall and went out for ice cream and sewed and swam and loved each other fiercely, even when we didn’t like each other very much. I am glad that even when she doesn’t know who I am, she knows that I love her, and that she loves me back. Love lasts longer than memory, it turns out. As we near the end of her life, as she begins hospice care and I get a knot in my stomach anytime I see that I’ve missed a phone call from home, I wish that I lived closer. I wish that we had more good years together. But mostly, I’m grateful for the time that we’ve had, and for this love beyond memory, which transcends even the passage of time.

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