Visiting With Grandma, and the Nature of Forgetting

Dad and I walk into the room and find her with her back turned, bent over and studying a square piece of white fabric. She seems so small, the way trees shrink in the winter after their leaves have all been blown away.

“Hey, mom, look who I brought,” he says in a strangely loud voice, then continues as she turns and eyes us up. “It’s Shawn.” The last bit was added to avoid any unnecessary embarrassment.

“Well, look who it is,” she says in a voice that sounds like her old self, only muffled. She reaches up with her still-strong fingers and grabs my chin, then plants a kiss square on my mouth.

“Hi, Grandma,” I say quietly, hugging her. There is a new quality to her hugs now, a desperation, as if each time she lets go she is acutely aware of all the time that has passed.

We sit on the sofa. Her grandfather clock occupies one corner; her bed is just across from us. A string of Christmas cards drapes along the wall – she used to do the same thing in her kitchen, when she lived at her home. She is 90 years old, but she tries to stay busy, which explains the patches she works on.

“Were you able to get to church on Sunday?” my dad says. His loud voice makes me cringe, but she cannot hear any other way.

“Oh, yes,” she says, as if she wouldn’t miss it. “I went to the one here in the building. That was, oh, well, it seems like we’re so far along in the week now.”

“Do you know what day it is, Mom?” my dad asks.

“Well, let’s see, you usually come on Thursdays. So it must be Thursday…or Tuesday or Wednesday?”

“It’s Monday, Mom. I always come on Mondays.”

“No!” she exclaims, not believing him. “So church was just yesterday? Oh, my.”

* * * * *

We look at the family history one of my uncles made for her that lists her parent’s birth dates, as well as those of all of her 11 brothers and sisters. She is the last of 11 children. She cannot remember the oldest two. It frustrates her, and she vacillates between disappointment at not being able to fish up the memory and a refusal to thinly veiled skepticism that they ever existed.

* * * * *

There seems to be a determination to preserve Grandma’s memory, to engage her in little games that will help restore the connections severed by her stroke and old age. I can understand the practical benefits of such efforts – it is important to remember when it is time to eat, and where to find the bathroom.

But I think I’ll leave the efforts at memory preservation to the rest of the family. I am happy to sit quietly beside her and remind her who I am. I don’t mind telling her it’s Monday three different times, and reacting each time to the shock and bewilderment that cross her face. I refuse to make her feel guilty for the huge stumbles taken by her tired mind.

Yes, there is something sad about forgetting. Or perhaps the main sadness lies in being forgotten. But hers is a quiet shutting down, a peaceful fading, and I have always been able to find some semblance of beauty in stark winter days.

* * * * *

She walks us to the stairway.

“So what day is this?” she asks again, as if it was the first time she had asked about that.

I smile.

“It’s Monday, Grandma. Remember? Dad always comes on Mondays.”

My dad and I walk outside and look up at the second-story window. This is the last time I will see her before we leave on our trip, and for her there is no guarantee about the next four months.

She stands there, clothed in the glaring sunlight of a mid-winter’s day, waving both hands at us as we leave and blowing kisses at us through parchment-paper hands, as if we are leaving her forever.

* * * * *

Related posts:
Whatever Hurts Us Makes Us Stronger: Thoughts On My Grandmother’s Stroke
Watching Someone’s Life Get Sold Out From Under Them
How My Grandma Tried to Reclaim the Washer I Bought at Her Sale

20 Replies to “Visiting With Grandma, and the Nature of Forgetting”

  1. This buckled me today. I’ve been spending the last week helping my dad care for and navigate the health care system to get my previously independent 95-year-old Grandpa into an extended care facility. It’s breaking my heart. Thank you for this post.

    1. Thanks for your comment and RT on Twitter, Amy. It’s heartbreaking, isn’t it, watching our loved ones enter this phase of life? There are so many different aspects that are unsettling: the way they forget, the way we feel forgotten, the subtle reminder about what lies in our distant future. Hang in there.

  2. My grandma is in her 70’s and worries that she’s forgetting more. But I’m the most sad about how hard she is on herself. I pray for peace for these amazing ladies.

  3. awwww shawny. made me cry once again. i miss grandma so much… i remember when i visited her and wondering if she would still be around once i got home. it is a strange feelings. so proud of dad for going every monday:) love you.

  4. This is achingly beautiful, Shawn. It is hard to witness that forgetfulness but it is a gift to gently remind and roll with wherever her memory takes you.

  5. hey shawn,
    you wripped my hear out on this one. thanks for your kind words about mom and putting it in such a great perspective. great piece love ya

  6. Thanks Shawn for agreat story about grama she has touched lots of lives in her day, sad to see her losing memory.

  7. I noticed your blog today on face-book and enjoyed reading it. My family is on a similar journey with my Dad who has dementia. It is a process of learning how to respond to their changes, as we try to hold on to who they were and are to us. We found out that when we drilled him and asked questions to try to help him remember, he felt frustrated. So I found it better with him to value what he is saying, even if it is factually wrong. Instead of correcting him if he says it’s the wrong day, I would say “Oh, does it feel like a Monday”, or “Does it feel like I wasn’t here for a long time? I’m glad you miss me”, even if it was just yesterday I was with him. I often think of a quote I read in the Parade magazine, “They don’t forget you, they just need help remembering.” I try to each time greet him with “Hi Dad, it’s Freida, your daughter”. It puts him at ease from trying to search for the information. If my family is with me, I’ll do the same for each of them and often show him pictures of my family if they’re not with me, “…this is my husband, my only boy…my girls..” and say their names. It helps him remember at the moment. Blessings to your family! I miss seeing your Grandma at Worship Center. Since I am a Smucker and she knew my parents, I always called her “Mommy Schmucker.” She is a blessed praying woman!

  8. Poignant….in the best sense of the word. The kindness and patience you give her is precious and the way I would hope to respond. She is a dear–I have always walked away from “chats”with her feeling so special,either because of the conversation itself,or by the way she held my hand or touched my arm,making me feel as if I was the only person present in the universe during our time together.
    You have a way of peeling back a layer of your heart and revealing ours,in the process. It is a gift.

Comments are closed.