The walk to my grandmother’s house can go by in a blink if I’m not mentally present during the endeavor. With minimal traffic, there is not much to prevent me from musing about anything among the company of nature. Watching squirrels darting around is always worthy of a smile, in my books. The luminous shade of blue sky and browning leaves littering the ground elicit memories of her home, namely the aged brown couch sitting in her living room.
As a child, when times were tough and money was tight, I could always count on my grandmother’s house for a warm meal and a place to rest. “Garde la foi, mon cher,” she would always say. (Keep faith, my dear.) I know, in the attic, there are boxes stacked upon boxes of artworks; evidence of a faithfully creative spirit not yet depleted by a soul-sapping society. A spirit that has rubbed off on me, to an extent. She is an excellent painter– but I am heavily biased– that has used “the world as a canvas for her expansive imagination,” to quote Thoreau.
When I get to her house and walk up the narrow pathway, the Sun is still peeking at me through the overlooking trees. It’s getting late in the day, so the bugs in her sprawling garden of flowers are active, and accompanying birds are belting out a chorus of soft songs. A lone cup of water with melting ice cubes sits on the small table near the chair inside the sunroom, evidently forgotten. According to the dictionary, dementia is defined as an irreversible brain disorder that slowly destroys memory and thinking skills. When the aged blue door opens, she is happy to see me, as always: “I haven’t seen you in such a long time! (I come once every month, like clockwork) Please do come in for tea. What kind do you like? (I like Earl Grey, but she only ever has ginger)” It’s clear now that today’s visit is not a lucid one, mentally speaking. It’s not entirely possible to make a generalization of lucid episodes for those with dementia, as everyone’s experiences are so personal.
With lucid episodes, family members and caregivers alike are often so caught up in the moment that they often fail to remember that victims of dementia forget. Such is the devilishness of dementia: its ability to keep hope alive while its symptoms signify only futility. It’s a terrible way of setting you up for failure, because: consciously, you understand what is going on with them, but that little unyielding piece of hope never truly goes away until they are past the point of no return. Apparently, we the observers need a victim’s memories more than they do.
Lauren: “The tea is ready.”
Patricia: “Thank you! I will have to tell my granddaughter about you.”
Lauren: “Well, who am I?”
Patricia: “Why, you’re Lauren!” *Chuckles*
For a moment, I was unabashedly stunned. Then, I walked over to where she sat, opposite me on the worn brown couch, and gently gave her the cup of ginger tea. I mournfully came to realize that something was happening that had nothing to do with the dramas of familial relationships. This wasn’t fair. This didn’t make sense. This is a lady who worked for decades as a social worker in the poorest parts of the Yukon, impacting the lives of children on reservations. Surely such a fatiguing job requires a permanently unmovable persona, like a brick wall. But yet, she was slowly conquered by her own brain. I had no choice but to accept the fate that had made itself known. My friend, my grand-maman, seemingly all of the sudden did not know who I was. That is a feeling of devastation I would not wish on my worst enemy.
Before I know it, 5 o’clock has come and I’m putting on my shoes, getting ready to go home. The walk back to my home feels burdensome, and far too quiet. I know, my purse only has a few items in it, but it weighs 50 pounds. The harmony of birdsong has fallen to a whisper of what it once was. Has it really only been less than two hours? I guess it has. Soft shades of pinks and blues are plastered all throughout the rolling skies, evidence of the Sun getting ready to go to sleep.
One of the cruellest aspects of dementia – one that guidebooks, articles, and support groups loathe to mention – is that its symptoms often resemble a laundry list of irritating behaviours that have always marked what makes a family. This is why the process of getting a diagnosis is so difficult. Sadly, it is only when dementia truly overwhelms people that observers finally see the condition for what it is.
But each time she forgets our conversations or what I have done for her, the same ache and disbelief still wells up inside me. I can’t seem to harden or detach myself enough to not feel so hurt when this happens, yet still be able to care. At this point, I’m not sure if I will ever be able to.
Everyone, including me, who she retells her stories to, stands to inherit a small piece of her world. I know, a moment will come when she’ll forget the names and faces of her parents, the lake where she played with friends, and the classroom in a town so small that it has probably forgotten its own name, which she helped run. I don’t know what I’ll do when the moment comes. God, I hope I can figure it out. I don’t know what I’ll do if I don’t. Until then, I’ll gladly continue our monthly meetings for ginger tea and conversation.
When you know someone with Dementia, it’s essential to understand that you won’t come out of this experience the same you were when you went into it. The pain of learning how to grieve for someone who is still alive is fortunately rivalled by few things. But if you don’t let the disease consume you, the fact that you were kind and good to a person you love in such difficult times should be a sufficient reward. I can only hope that the same kindness will be given to me if I go down the same road. In a sense, my grandmother slowly forgetting me showed me a piece of who I am.