“Grandma, what’s my name?” Squinting her dulling umber eyes at me, I can see the gears turning, albeit slowly. She studies my face, searching for the answer. Minutes pass before she finally replies, but with the wrong name. My mother’s, not mine. Although I feel like crying, I smile and encourage her to try again. Some days she’ll name both my sisters before she eventually grasps mine. Other times, my mother’s the only one she can recall.
When my grandmother was first diagnosed with dementia, I didn’t quite understand the severity of the disease. My grandma had recently become more forgetful, but who isn’t at her age? Her ailment seemed so far away. It wasn’t until years later, when the condition began to manifest, that I was hit with the sudden realization that my relationship with my grandma, at least how it was then, was dying.
I have always been very close to my grandmother. Before her inability to take care of herself was revealed, my mother drove my sisters and me to our grandmother’s house once a week, if not more. Visiting my grandma was like visiting Santa. But she gave gifts of ice cream, money, and witty remarks. No one could get the drop on her. She’s always been a magnanimous person, and never withheld anything, material or otherwise, from my sisters and me.
Even now, when I need to help her walk from one room to the other, I see glimpses of who she used to be. Although her own body is frail and weak, she always asks how I’m doing. She doesn’t remember what I say, and she might even ask the same question in the next five minutes. But I remember. Although she can’t recall what my favorite color is or where I go to school, I know she genuinely wants to know. She wants to remember.
I believe you can look at my grandma’s condition in two ways. One, the more pessimistic view, is that she has no control over her own brain, that no matter how important something is to her, it will eventually fade into the recesses of her mind. I would rather not look at it that way. The other, more optimistic view, is that after living a long fulfilled life, my grandmother begins each day anew, with no memory of the grievances of yesterday, and no fear of the stresses of tomorrow.