When I tell people that Grandma Pauline died last year at the age 96, the response is almost always some permutation of “You were blessed to have her for so long.” That is true in the technical sense. But the truth is that my grandmother had been gone for more than a decade when she took her last breath.
Nina and Grandma Pauline
By the time Grandma Pauline was in her late 70s, her mind was already beginning to fail. She stopped going to her film class; she quit her book club; she lost interest in seeing friends. She told the same stories over and over, and as time went on closer and closer together. Since the doctors were unable to diagnosis exactly what kind of dementia she suffered from, her children and grandchildren had no general timeline to predict her decline. She didn’t wander off and she never completely forgot the members of her immediate family. But she was confused in large groups and had trouble keeping track of the names of what I suspect she considered the “extra characters” in her life, like our spouses and her great-grandchildren.
Out of loyalty to our relationship and because it was the right thing to do, I spent time with my grandmother whenever I came to Chicago to see my parents. However, by the time she was 85, the connection I’d always considered so special, essential, and real had truly become formal and foreign.
She knew my face and my name, and she knew that we had always been close, but I suspected that my grandmother no longer remembered what made us close like the many Saturday night sleepovers from my childhood, when we’d go to one of her few pre-approved restaurants. She’d probably forgotten how she’d give me a manicure and we’d go through old photo albums or watch “Saturday Night Live.” And didn’t seem to remember our countless lunches at Neiman Marcus, where she’d insist I use every last bit of strawberry butter for the popovers while also lecturing me not to pick out such dainty jewelry. “Do you know you’re precious?” she would ask during every outing together. “Do you know you’re loved?”
I wish I had known to write down the details of her life while she was still sharing them during those sleepovers and lunches. Later as the dementia set in, there were certain moments from her life she’d tell repeatedly like the time she got fired from her job for wearing a Roosevelt pin, and the time she walked into a synagogue at the age of 15 and asked to receive an education there even though her family didn’t have a membership. Most of the other stories fell away to the point where I couldn’t remember them either.
When I’d ask about my grandfather, Norman, who died in his late 50s in a plane crash on his way to Japan, she’d remind me that I was named after him. She’d tell me how smart he was and how much he would have loved me, but I couldn’t get her to say anything of substance. I wanted to know what it was to lose her husband in such a shocking, dramatic way — and how she was able to rebuild her life. But I didn’t ask, and she couldn’t really answer anyway.
In the last few years of Grandma Pauline’s life, my older two kids, around 6 and 8 at the time, were confused about why we “had to” make time to see her. “She doesn’t know us,” they’d say. I took them to see her anyway. But finding a way to act friendly and cheerful and talkative with the woman who still looked like my grandma required me to put my memories of her pre-dementia identity on hold.
It felt inappropriate to mourn Grandma Pauline, while she was still with us — at least in the literal sense, but the spirit of her was so far away. But then, in January, my parents called with news that she had contracted pneumonia. One of her lungs had failed and she was no longer conscious. Get to Chicago right away, they told me. My husband and I arranged a sitter to stay home with our younger two kids, then picked up our older two from school and left Minneapolis — our funeral clothes in tow — that afternoon. I cried quietly in the passenger seat, as decade-old memories of our pre-dementia relationship resurfaced.
When we got word en route that she had died, my husband had to keep assuring the kids that I was okay. They had never seen me sob, and they couldn’t grasp what was so sad about losing a person who barely remembered me.
“But I can finally remember her,” I would have explained, except that I couldn’t talk. I was devastated, but also relieved for the permission to mourn what I had lost so many years earlier. It was during that drive that I filled pages with notes about my childhood memories of her. I was looking for details I could use for the eulogy I’d need to deliver two days later, but I also wanted to melt the feelings about her I’d frozen since she’d started becoming a different person. Before my grandma died, I’d get a hardened, stoic sensation when I’d think about her. It wasn’t until after she died that I was able to honor the memories she would have wanted me to keep, the vibrant ones, the ones unfettered by repetitive questions and painful moments of outright confusion.
The last time I saw my grandmother was in April 2013, about nine months before she died. By some miracle, this visit included an unusual bright spot of lucidity. She’d experienced a bad fall, and I’d come to see her at the hospital. I sat on her bed and held her hand. With tears in her eyes, she said, “We are very special to each other, aren’t we?” We talked about the sleepovers, lunches, and other happy times. I felt I was able to reach her in that moment. And now that I can only reach back through the memories, I promise to share the best ones I have with my children and, God-willing, with my grandchildren and great-grandchildren. I want them to know I had a Grandma Pauline, who filled me with enough love to pass on a gift like that to all of them.
Nina Badzin is columnist at The HerStories Project and Tcjewfolk.com, as well as a contributing writer at Kveller.com and Greatnewbooks.org. Her essays and short stories have appeared in numerous websites, anthologies, and literary journals. You can find her weekly on her blog ninabadzin.com and much too often on Twitter and Facebook.
Freshman Shares Story Of Grandfather's Death For Essay Contest
Nov. 27, 2012
SHSU Media Contact: Jennifer Gauntt
|Michelle Harris, this year's Bearkats Read to Succeed essay contest winner, still carries her grandfather's harmonica with her. Like Henrietta's cells to the Lacks family, it serves as a constant reminder to her of who her grandfather was before he was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease. —Photo by Brian Blalock|
Freshman education major Michelle Harris was selected as the winner of the inaugural Bearkats Read to Succeed essay contest held this fall. For the contest, students were asked to relate their personal experiences to this year's common reader selection 'The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,' by Rebecca Skloot, following the theme of coping with illness, overcoming adversity, or confronting an ethical dilemma. As the winner, Harris received a $500 scholarship from the First Year Experience Office. In her essay below the League City native and SHSU Honors College student discusses the loss of her grandfather. The narrative is published as submitted, with no amendations.
A Lost Screw
When I gazed into the eyes of my grandfather and hero, I had no idea that those familiar blue eyes no longer knew who I was. I knew he was stumbling in life and that for the first time in over fifty years, he was separated from my grandmother and placed into an assisted living community. My hero was falling, but to what extent I failed to grasp until that first and most difficult visit. No one in the family knew my grandfather suffered from Alzheimer’s until the disease had already run rampant throughout his strong mind, much to the comparison of Henrietta’s cancer which claimed her body. It turned his memories against him, seemingly repositioning his axons and changing the Vietnam hero and sheriff into a man who knew not even himself. With each visit he seemed to only split further, confused at the simplest of tasks and often forgetting his identity, leaving the family to mourn the loss of a man so great. Though he was with us for over six more months before being called into Heaven, that which distinguished him as family was stripped away within weeks. There was no longer the soft hum of the harmonica when I entered my grandmother’s house, and there was no longer the depression in the couch cushion where my grandfather relaxed with the newspaper while enjoying television. When the time came that he was taken into Heaven, my family mourned greatly. Each of us shared our memories with one another to celebrate his life, and watched as he was laid to rest among his former comrades from war. With the Veteran’s salute and rifle fire, he vanished from our eyes and into a much more welcoming place, away from the troubles of this world as my family has always believed.
It was not long after his death that my grandmother surprised me with the gift of my grandfather’s truck. It was an older Chevrolet that had seen better days. It was losing its paint, had dents along the side, was riddled with scratches and BB gun dents, and had no air conditioning. Many people had suggested my grandfather sell the truck years ago to purchase a vehicle in better condition, but he insisted instead on working to provide for his wife and family. He was a true believer in the value of hard work and thought that the most important things in life didn’t carry a price tag. When I went to work on repairing it and cleaning it up, I found sand in every crack and hinge from the countless times my grandfather drove us along the beach, rushing over the dunes as we bounced in the truck bed with laughter. I found old shotgun shells from the days when he would take us hunting and tell us tales of the old days of his youth. In the glove compartment, I found old title renewal forms and the manual, all carrying his handwriting in little notes and details about the truck’s mileage and last oil change. Old maps were riddled with coloration as he plotted out different trips and vacations, many of which I had heard stories from. The toolbox contained all of his old tools—lanterns for camping, pocket knives he collected, chains he used to drag his friends out of the mud should they ever have gotten stuck, and old dirty gloves that illustrated his hard work to fix that which required fixing. Each of those pieces simply brought back more of my grandfather’s life, and the fact that I was the one to receive them made it worthwhile. It was several weeks later that I finished cleaning, and in the last little pocket on the driver’s door, I found a true treasure, my grandfather’s harmonica. Members of my family would swear that my grandfather never left home without that harmonica, it was his signature token and he taught himself to play as a young man. No holiday celebration was left without all the grandchildren sitting in his lap as he played a tune for all of us. When I held that old harmonica in my hand, I was able to really look at it with a newfound appreciation. Though it had lost a screw and the faceplate had come loose, it opened the floodgate of memories from my childhood about how amazing of a man my grandfather truly was, and how he never complained about the difficulties in life. Inspecting the little instrument, I took notice of its imperfections with a smile. Like my truck, the harmonica had its aesthetic flaws, all of which told their own story. I realized that nothing in life is meant to be perfect, not with people, ideas, or objects and though my grandfather passed away a few years ago now, he has taught me life lessons through his memories that otherwise I feel I would have failed to comprehend.
Through the pieces of his life that remained after he moved on and as I grew to cope with his illness and death, I have come to realize the value of dedication and hard work, and how it is through our actions and words that we make this world a better place. Sometimes people forget the value of a warm smile, a hug to those in need, or even the value of dedicated work. It’s not about who has the nicest things or the most money, but who leads their life with a warm heart. As I remain here today driving my truck with pride with harmonica in suite, I’ll never forget the influence of my grandfather and his life, nor how even after his death, he changed my life. Though I miss him greatly I am proud to remember that every time I turn the key in the ignition, I know he rides along with me in heart, reminding me of life’s smallest and greatest blessings.
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