My grandma’s memory is failing her and all I want to do is go back in time to relive the moments I didn’t realize I’d come to cherish.
I’ve been struggling to find a way to write this post because I don’t know who will see it or how it’ll be received. I won’t be writing anything that isn’t true to how I feel but when writing about something as debilitating as dementia, it can be painful to read. So grandma, if you read this, I love you. We all love you.
I’m fortunate enough to have experienced the love of many grandma’s in my 31 years of life. For the first 11 years, I had two great-grandmas, two grandmas, and a step-grandma. All living. How incredible is that?
My paternal great-grandma, Agnes, passed away at the age of 87. For the last handful years of her life, she struggled with Alzheimer’s and ultimately lost that battle not remembering the people who loved her most.
That is my greatest fear, truly. To not remember.
I feel like I function off of love, don’t we all to some extent? To live a life of love to the best of our abilities all to have it come to an end so slowly taking the best memories you have with it? It sounds like a miserable, gut-wrenching, disaster.
I feel like I’m watching that happen to my grandma Darlene (Agnes’ daughter, my dad’s mom) right now. I was 11 when my great-grandma Aggie died. The memories I have of her are few but fond. I remember her entire house inside and out. I could sketch it out on graph paper right now if I wasn’t typing this. I remember the little “hiding spots” upstairs. I remember the view we saw if we came in the front door verses the back. I remember Halloween and laughter and heavy Norwegian accents.
My two favorite memories of her are the buttering of saltine crackers for a snack and her infamous phrase towards men with saggy pants asking if they had “dritt i buksa” (shit in the pants!).
I know I was there towards the end but I don’t remember it as clearly as the good times, which is probably okay. I was very young visiting her in the nursing home and I remember seeing my grandma (her daughter) upset. I don’t think I had any idea what was actually happening outside of an old women nearing the end of her time here on the physical Earth. Nothing more, nothing less.
But I now know it was so much more than that. To be loved by people you don’t recognize and to love someone who no longer knows you.
I don’t experience every day life with my grandma anymore and haven’t for well over 15 years but we do phone often. She’s nearly three hours north of here and still lives on her own in the same house she did when I went to school in Roseau. My brother Nick and I would walk to her house after school when it was nice out.
As with my great-grandma Aggie, some of my favorite memories are with my grandma Darlene. Good memories that I didn’t know were good at the time. She took pride in her garden, always a green thumb. When I was little, I just assumed gardening was easy and it took little to no energy. I found out the hard way what a joke that is when I grew up and had dabbled a bit in it myself. I’m more of a succulent gal thanks to my many failed attempts. Teach me your ways, gram.
Her rickety old swing set was another. There was nothing special about it other than it was there and so were we. I’m surprised we never swung so high that it tipped over. She’d sit at the picnic table or garden while we played. Us kids were in our own little world so much of the time and she was just there watching us enjoy life in such a blissful state. I wonder what she was thinking about during those moments.
She used to make us mac n’ cheese with hotdogs but not just regular ol’ cut up hot dogs, that’s boring. She’d cut them vertically almost to the end and spread them out like an octopus over the pile of cheesy noodles. It always made us giggle.
Grandma’s two favorite shows in life (or at least in the life I was a part of) were JAG and Jeopardy. The two J’s, so to speak. She was way better at Jeopardy than I was. I called her when Alex Trebek died last month and she’d said she hadn’t watched Jeopardy in years. I wonder when she stopped and why. I didn’t think to ask.
I’m sure I could go on for days about the things that riled grandma up or the ones that made her laugh. Just thinking about them makes my eyes swell because those moments are so far behind us and I’m afraid they are memories all my own, no longer shared by her.
A week or two ago, my grandma stayed here in Fargo with my aunt Krissy. They have a strenuous relationship and always have, I believe. It’s not difficult to see the strain. I’m fortunate enough not to know what that’s like. I can’t imagine having to sort through those types of feelings for a lifetime. But I see the hurdles they face in them both, my aunt and my grandma, or I try my best to.
My grandma wasn’t a perfect mom or grandma for that matter but who is, really? My mom recently put that into perspective when she said parents aren’t given a guidebook. They do their best with what they know or have and I try to remember that often especially when I feel put down.
I think my grandma has made comment on my weight every single time I’ve seen her throughout my life. It doesn’t sting any less now than it did when I was 8 years old. I think she’s developed tact over the years though, but maybe not. When I brought her to dinner a couple weeks back, I was telling her about the adventures I hope to go on in 2021 (pending the ‘rona of course). One of them being South Africa. On one hand, she was at a loss for words in admiration of the wanderlust spirit I have but on another hand, she was pre-emptively second-hand embarrassed for me. She made me promise that I wouldn’t travel anywhere else until I “lose a considerable amount of weight” and it breaks her heart to see me looking like I do. A promise I don’t know if I can keep, honestly. She also reminded me that it’ll be hard to find love if I look the way that I do, that it might have been better just to stay with “him” (my ex of nearly 10 years) because then I wouldn’t be alone.
I know all of that and I’d be lying if I didn’t tell myself those same things on a way-too-regular basis but I also know them to be falsities of another generation.
In moments like that, I struggle to keep the hurt feelings inside but I do. Because the affliction I see in her eyes less than two minutes later when she doesn’t know where she is is more painful than anything she’s ever said about my weight.
When she was here to visit for a week, I spent four evenings with her. We mostly reminisced about the good ol’ days of the 20th century. I asked how she met my grandpa; what kind of dates they went on and what he was like as a father in the early years. I asked about how her parents met, what her favorite memories were, and learned all about things I’d never bothered asking before.
I focused on the past because the present seems to cause so much distress in her mind. When we do circle back to the here-and-now, the tone in her voice changes from a lighthearted sparkle to one filled with melancholy and tears. She’s so weak and frail in those moments. She’s sometimes literally and figurately so lost in the present that it’s unbearable for her.
She knows it happening, her memory failing. I picture it the same way I pictured an accident I was in a few years back. I was going 60 on the interstate here in Fargo. Traffic slowed ahead of me, as did I, but the traffic slowed so abruptly that I didn’t have a chance to react in time. It all happened so fast and so slow in the same moment. It was terrifying.
That’s how I imagine my grandma feels when her memory lapses.
She’s back home now. My aunt brought her home two Saturday’s ago. At the time I didn’t know that the most painful of conversations were about to be had.
My grandma called me because she didn’t know who it was that delivered us pizza the evening before, here in Fargo. She didn’t know whose home we had been in with my cousins and brother surrounding the table and she didn’t know who brought her back to Roseau that day. It was Krissy, her daughter. She knew who Krissy was but didn’t recognize her in the flesh. She’d forgotten and it left her disoriented. She didn’t understand.
A couple months back she had called me asking to know who a couple of people were and it turns out one of them was my cousin Garrett. What followed that was a series of phone calls to me from her being in complete awe and totally perplexed as to how she could have forgotten who her own grandchild was.
That was the first time she verbalized to me that she was afraid. She’d gone through this with her mother, my great-grandma. She was nearly inaudible when she said she doesn’t want to forget my dad (her son) or me or Emma. She said doesn’t want anyone to see her lose her mind. She doesn’t want to tell her doctors. She wept when she told me she’s not ready for this.
I don’t think anyone is, grandma. I don’t think we can prepare for this.
She knows her memory is failing. It’s sporadic and random but it does seem to be more short term than long and I think that’s what makes it so much more heartbreaking, that she knows.
As someone I recently visited with said so perfectly: “It wouldn’t be 2020 if the last month wasn’t the hardest of them all.” Ouch, but true.
You might be wondering what this post has to do with my series. This post is the reason for my series; Holidaze. My grandma is currently in a daze, a state of confusion. A life of “everything seems to be fine” but then a blip occurs and it’s thrown off it’s axis.
I didn’t start this series to solely share a social-media filtered version of my seemingly perfect life because it’s so not that. I do admittingly try to focus on the good, try to only show the good but life isn’t always good. Sometimes all we want is a Wishenpoof wand to make it all better but they are in short supply this year. Everyone is trying them out on different things.
To close, I just want us all to remember where we came from, who we came from. Reflect on the parts of life that formed us into who we are today, recognize that they aren’t all going to be sunshine-y moments. The tough times shape us too. I want this to serve as a reminder to see beyond the pain that people may have caused you and try to address the pain that they have themselves. Dig deep to exhibit empathy to those you don’t understand.
I wish I could push pause and rewind on my grandma’s mind to the exact moment before her brain decided to stop working as hard. I wish I would preserve the memories for her to replay when she is feeling lost. I wish I could go back in time and prepare her heart before it was broken by the loss of a baby and ultimately a divorce. I wish I could have been there for her when she needed someone in her 80+ years of life because I see all of that now and I never had before. I just wish I could hug her and never let go.
I hope my grandma does have many years of life yet ahead of her and I hope we are able to contribute to it in the most positive of ways even if it’s from afar. I hope my niece Emma remembers her years after she’s gone and I hope she lives to see more great-grand babies of her own. I hope that I never lose the memories I have of her and I hope she finds comfort in knowing how immensely she is loved by me.
Thank you for reading. Go call your grandma (or someone you miss).
Edit: We did, in fact, swing so high the swing set tipped over! And on multiple occasions to boot. My brother’s memory has always exceeded mine. Thank you to Nick for fact-checking! :)