I've been thinking about my grandpa a lot lately. When I was growing up, my grandparents lived in the same town I did, so they were very much a part of my everyday life. My grandma passed away right before I got married. My parents retired and moved to a sane climate a few years ago, and I live halfway across the country, so I don't have reason to be in my hometown much anymore. The last time I saw Grandpa was almost three years ago.
I will be back home to see friends in a few months, and I obviously should stop to visit Grandpa too. The thing is--and I'm mortified to say this--but I'd really rather not. See, Grandpa has been in the memory unit of a nursing home for the past couple years, and I'm fairly certain he won't know who I am. I know that, and the fact of it doesn't upset me. It's just not the last memory of him I want to have.
When I saw Grandpa three years ago, he was beginning to have memory trouble. The day I saw him was a good day, and we had a fantastic visit. He told me stories, showed me old photos, and seemed thrilled to have someone who was genuinely interested in what he had to say. Afterward, he told my mother what a nice visit we'd had. While a big marshmallow inside, Grandpa was always pretty gruff about things, so I took this as quite a compliment.
This Christmas, my aunt showed him our family Christmas card as a means of identifying me as the sender of a particular Christmas gift. He insisted that the woman she pointed to wasn't me, and instead pointed to my four-year-old daughter and said, "That's Cynthia." I am incredibly grateful that my aunt shared this story with me, because it meant Grandpa at least knew me at some moment in time, even if that time was 35+ years ago. At some point, he will not.
The other reason I've been thinking about this has to do with a book I just finished (more on that later). The book is, among other things, about dementia patients and the effects of the disease on the patients' families. I paraphrase, but the book explains that families of dementia patients have to understand that the person before them is not the same person they have loved, but someone who still benefits from their love and affection. One adult child of a dementia patient said he was able to deal with it so well because he said goodbye to his parent years ago and was getting to know the new person brought on by dementia.
In this light, I've been thinking that my visit may be less upsetting than I anticipated. I will continue to think of my grandpa as I always knew him--a lovable curmudgeon who told me "Santa died" (don't ask) and "just say NO" (to boys). He smelled of Vitalis, beer in a plastic pitcher from the basement keg, popcorn he made on the stove, and Doublemint gum that he kept in his center dresser drawer (and that I was allowed to pilfer). I picture him seated at his spot at the kitchen table or in a lawn chair getting some sun in the backyard. I hear his grumbling at my grandmother and the rest of us, and I hear his laugh, which once was plentiful. I won't let his illness affect the lifetime of memories I already have.
This is about how he remembers me, so it's how I'll choose to remember him. One of my favorite photos:
The book I read is Making Rounds with Oscar: The Extraordinary Gift of an Ordinary Cat by David Dosa, M.D. The author's son and mine are good friends, and I believe we parents are becoming good friends as well. While promoted as a book about a nursing home cat that knew when a resident was about to die (which it is), it is really about the much deeper issues of aging, dementia, and end-of-life care decisions. The book was an easy read containing anecdotes from the author's geriatric practice, but clearly has left me thinking about some very personal and important issues.