“Well, but again, this life has its own mortal loveliness. And memory is not strictly mortal in its nature, either. It is a strange thing, after all, to be able to return to a moment, when it can hardly be said to have any reality at all, even in its passing. A moment is such a slight thing, I mean, that its abiding is a most gracious reprieve.”

-John Ames, Gilead by Marilynne Robinson

Memory gives us such wonderful illusions—like the experience of a moment. We are constantly moving through time, never able to stop. This makes me afraid, and when I think about it for too long, very confused. If I try to pay attention to my thoughts as they blaze onward, becoming aware of how what I have just thought is gone and what I am now thinking is left behind me, like a pen dragged on a page, I realize that current experience is immeasurably small, smaller than the tip of that pen, and a moment is only a memory of the line behind it.

“How’s school?”

Grandma Shirley asks me this every single time I see her, even though I graduated many months ago. She was at the graduation, but even when she was there, she wasn’t entirely aware of what was happening.

“It’s going well, Grandma.”

“I’m so happy for you. You really made it didn’t you?”

I never know how to respond to that one. So I just say, “Yeah,” and try to pull away from the hug she doesn’t realize has lasted this whole conversation. A part of me feels guilty about that, like I should just keep hugging her until she lets go herself, but the thought makes me uncomfortable. Who knows how long a hug would last when one person doesn’t know when it started.

My Grandma has Alzheimer’s, and my family speculates she has had it for a little over a decade. Her decline has been unusually slow, due in part, perhaps, to her intelligence. She was once able to design and sew award-winning quilts, which decorate the walls of her room in the memory care unit. Now she looks at them and asks who made them.

Alzheimer’s has to be one of humankind’s most dehumanizing diseases. Whatever rich life was lived before turns to ashes inside the mind, leaving what remains to wander from moment to moment, confused and frustrated. I imagine it’s much like trying to put together a puzzle where the pieces disappear not long after they are placed. It seems like a punishment only Dante could have dreamed up. My grandma can’t seem to move past the very first piece.

When I watch Grandma Shirley as she sits through a conversation, there is no moment. Time slips through her fingers like water, and all she can do is sit and look at the people in the room with her, laughing at things she doesn’t understand and asking questions so that she can participate in some way. The experience of a moment is lost on her, as if she’s trapped at the tip of a pen with no ink.

It makes me wonder, when we talk about words like “humanity”: does she still have hers? So much has been stripped clean away; she is not the same woman she once was, the disease has been so catastrophic. Life without memory is not life at all—that is at least the way it seems. She is living and breathing, after all, but so incompletely. God wants us to remember.

When we interact with her, we are interacting as much with our own memory of her as we are with the person in front of us, perhaps more so—a wonderful delusion. I wonder if we subconsciously hope that she is still out there, complete as she once was. What else could we believe in the midst of such evil?

I was at my aunt and uncle’s house, watching as my younger cousins decorated their Christmas tree. Grandma Shirley was there as well, seated by the fireplace and tearing up as a memory surfaced.

“You know, this reminds me of when I was a child, and my mom would take me to her sisters in… in…”

“Cleveland?” Auntie Beth asks.

“In Cleveland. And this was before my sister was born, you know. We would go up to Cleveland. I was young, and my mom would drive me up there, to her sisters. Their names were…”

“Helen and Lucille,” says Auntie Beth.

“How did you know that?” says Grandma Shirley.

“Because I’m your daughter, and you’ve told me this before.”

“Well,” she says with a note of irritation, “do you want me to tell the story?”

“Yes.”

“So this was before my sister was born, you know. My mom would take me up to… to…”

Seeing her with Grandpa Dick makes all these questions seem infantile. He still takes care of her, bathing her and changing her diaper, and talks with her as the wife he’s always loved. He brings her to gatherings and stays by her side the whole time, while I get antsy after only a few minutes. When she asks him if he’s her husband, he’ll respond, “If I’d have known we could have four kids without getting married, life would have been a whole lot easier!” He always pokes fun at her like this, and she laughs and says, “Oh, you’re so full of it!”

What a reminder that there are no irreconcilable differences. She is, next to him, human to the end.

6 Comments

  1. Avatar

    “Human to the end.”

    Yes.

    Reply
  2. Avatar

    Will, you sir have a beautiful gift to express human feelings with a pen. A gift you no doubt received from your Mom. A beautiful tribute that if I were a gambler, would wager your grandma knows your heart. I believe in an eternity with a loving Creator who makes us whole in the resurrection. Families are forever and will be united, whole for eternity. Floyd R Strayer

    Reply
  3. Avatar

    Thanks to your mother, I was able to read this. A beautifully told truth from a loving grandson. What a gift you have and what a gift you are.
    Dianne Marx

    Reply
  4. Avatar

    Beautifully told, Will. Thank you for this and the recognition that it is your grandpa’s love that confirms Shirley’s humanity. Beautiful.

    Reply
  5. Avatar

    I read a book called Dementia, by John Swinton, a while ago — he talks about how, no matter what happens to us, we are “tightly held in the memories of God,” which I found really comforting. I liked your point that she’s tightly held in the memories of those humans who love her, too.

    Reply
    • Avatar

      Laura, Thanks for sharing the book title and quote by John Swinton. I just checked it out on Amazon. It looks like a good read and I have added it to my list of “must-reads.”

      Reply

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