The only thing I knew about my great grandfather was his dementia. How he once sat at his kitchen table when a car drove by and muttered it was the Nazis, even though WWII had ended decades before. It was told as a funny story in my family. Just like how we later told the funny story of how Grandma shouted, “COCK!” in the middle of a family dinner. She was a decent woman who was greatly concerned with how others perceived her. It felt like she had been holding that “COCK” in for seventy years, and the spreading dementia is what finally helped her to let it out.
We take Grandma to the same places as before, even though she doesn’t want to be there. We still tell her about our days, even though she doesn’t understand us. We visit her, even when it makes her eyebrows nervously raise and her fingers scratch her arm. Are we doing it because we love her? Is it to comfort ourselves? If no one is getting what they want out of this, then who are we doing it for?
We spent every summer at our cottage. Three tiny houses surrounded by forest, with a sandy beach by the lake. Our whole family used to go: my parents, cousin and aunt, Grandma and Grandpa, his sister and her husband. The first ones to disappear were Grandpa’s sister and her husband—their bodies had crumbled to the point where they could no longer leave their apartment. The next one to say goodbye to family summers was Grandma. She could no longer swim in the lake or calm down in a sun chair on the lawn. The last year she was constantly on edge, seemingly scared of turning every corner of the tiny houses. She knew the place was special but could no longer remember why. She would stand in front of the red painted cottage, where she used to get her sleep, and look around with a puzzled face. We kept bringing her out there that last summer, hoping she would get used to the place she used to love. But she never did.
The soldiers are the most consistent topic of conversation at the elderly home—“the handsome boys,” as Grandma calls them. They’re the WWII soldiers who lived on her farm when she was a small child, and seventy years later she still can’t get over how attractive they were. Four years deep in dementia, this is the only story she still manages to tell. She remembers them clearer than her own husband. Grandpa laughs along with the rest of us when she talks about them, never showing how much it must hurt.
She brings up the story every time I visit. I don’t know if it’s because she loves to tell it or because she feels like she should be telling me something, and this is the one story she has left.
I used to measure my choices by how memorable they would be. “How much will I think about this later?” If the answer was “not at all,” I wouldn’t do it. Now I know that in the end, the answer will always be “not at all” for me. So, really, what’s the value of doing anything?
We could still laugh when wine affected her more than before, or when she grabbed my breasts and commented, “You get the big ones from me” when I hugged her goodbye after a family evening. It became harder to find the funny side when she had to look at my face for a few seconds too long before she could find my name, or when Grandpa got too scared to leave their house for more than fifteen minutes at the time, in case she would accidentally hurt herself.
Humor was replaced by worry when I wanted my dad to get checked for biological markers for Alzheimer’s. “I didn’t know you could do that,” he said, but never turned this new information into action. Neither did my brother or I.
We talked about the dementia as something that had swallowed Grandma and the generations before her. We never mentioned that it hadn’t skipped a generation yet. Instead, we made an effort to forget the threat of each other’s decay.
If she’s going to forget everything in a few moments either way, does it even matter what we tell her? Does any conversation mean anything at this point?
My parents, Grandma, and I stood in her bedroom. While the others were playing the piano in the corner, Grandma went out to the living room, waving me along and whispering, “I have to show you something.” She brought me to a shelf overfilled with family pictures and picked up one at the end. “Do you know who this is? I can't remember who he is, but every time I see it, I start to cry. He’s so cute.”
I didn’t know how to explain that the redheaded five-year-old in the photo was the white haired forty-five-year-old in her bedroom, or that she had forgotten her son.
Talking to her around the nurses makes me nervous. They are trained for this and know how to calm her down. I have no idea what to say to her to make her feel better. At this point, she has nothing but emotions left. That’s what Mom keeps reminding us: even if she doesn’t have memories, or logic, she still has feelings. So whenever I visit her I try to make her less scared, help her wipe some of that confusion from her face. But in case I fail and make her upset, I don’t want the nurses to see it, so I sit with her in the smaller rooms, where I can close the door. We sit on the uncomfortable wooden bench, and she asks me who I am. I want her to know that I’m her granddaughter. I want to tell her how college is going, and how backpacking was, and that everyone is so much quieter when we’re at the summer house nowadays. But I don’t want her to start to worry, and be scared that this person she doesn’t recognize is supposed to be her family. So I tell her the same thing as every time: “I'm your new neighbor.” She answers with a smile. If I’m someone new, she doesn’t have to feel bad about forgetting me.
Is the Grandma I grew up with already dead, and now her body is just a home for the dementia? Are there ounces of her left in there, or is she just another memory that will be forgotten? How much has she noticed of the slow suffocation of herself?
During the years when her dementia got worse and worse each day, but Grandpa still did everything he could to have her live at their home, the battle between who she used to be and the dementia got rougher and rougher.
Like how she still cared about her appearance, so of course she wouldn’t allow her shirt to stay wrinkled. But she forgot to take it off before ironing, and Grandpa found her in the basement pressing the hot iron against her own sleeve.
Or like when that strange man tried to touch her naked body; of course she fought back. She didn’t allow just anyone to do just anything to her. What she didn’t know is that the man she was hitting with the showerhead was her husband of fifty years; Grandpa was only trying to help her to shower before she left the house for the first time in days.
“I’m going away for a few months and want a picture of you. So I’m just going to take a quick photo, is that okay?” I don't know why I ask her this when she hasn’t said a coherent word in six months. It used to be impossible to make her stop talking, and now I hopelessly wait for her to make a single sound. She stays quiet, sitting motionless in her wheelchair, head tilted back and eyes barely open. When I bring out the camera, she starts to scratch her left arm. The same thing I do when I’m freaking out. I don’t want her to be scared, but there’s a small reminder in the back of my mind that she might not be alive when I come back home. Memories of what she looked like, what she used to say, and how she acted before the dementia have already started to disappear, being replaced by memories from the last seven years of sickness. I don’t want to forget these new memories in another seven years. I need this picture, and she’s going to forget this nervousness soon enough either way.
I try to calm her down afterwards, talking about the dinner she’s about to have. She mumbles and make a few noises, her usual response. And amongst the incoherent sounds, she says “potatoes.” The first word I’ve heard her say in half a year. I start to cry, and the sudden emotion makes her scratch her arm again. I look at her twitching fingers, which are too weak to properly scratch. The rest of her body is too exhausted to move. It’s like her skin is about to slip off her body, hanging low from her tired skeleton. Studying her face, I realize how alike we are. I always thought our sole similarity was how we both let our mouths run without purpose, but now I see that there’s more than that. Same nose, sagging cheeks, eyes. I see more of myself in her than ever before. And I see nothing of her.