As my maternal grandmother was dying this formerly highly intelligent woman was reduced to a very different being as she was in the grips of dementia. While she had a live in nurse named Alice from Zambia I had the task of visiting with her with some regularity in her final months and weeks. I drove out from New York City to East Quogue to her water front home where I spent a huge section of my summers as a kid.
While I loved my grandmother I had a challenging relationship with her for most of my life. While she was brilliant and could be very generous she would also mix with that cutting words and a controlling nature.
My love for her came with memories of forced hugs and paths physically blocked from my passage unless I said “I love you Grandma.”
But near the end that changed. While her dementia caused her to run away from her home to the fire station and report that spies were infiltrating her home, she had an innocence and simplicity to her that I had never witnessed. Perhaps it was the same innocence and simplicity that I had as a child that she had found so compelling that she forced me to share it with her.
That said, there was a heavy fearful and paranoid flavor in her dementia that was certainly part of her personality in my youth. But in her waning days it was amplified.
I had tremendous compassion for this woman in her infirm state. The unmixed love came through when I had to drive her places or carry her or keep company with her.
I had just arrived in the late afternoon. I walked into the two story beach house on Shinnecock Road through the screen door I had walked through innumerable times before.
Alice was screaming at my grandmother:
Natalie! You have to eat. We have been doing this for hours! Eat! Please!
My grandmother, at a frail 110 pounds, maybe less, (Alice wasn’t much bigger), was screaming back from the staircase with her arms crossed:
I am not eating until those damn alligators are gone from underneath the table! How many times do I have to tell you? Do you want me to get eaten alive?
The scene was equal parts tense, sad and funny. It couldn’t have been easy being around a relatively highly functioning and mobile woman with dementia all the time. Alice begged me to reason with my grandmother.
But instead I looked at my grandmother, said hello and asked her
Grandma, the alligator leashes are where we left them last time, right?
I didn’t wait for an answer but made a big and visible pantomime of opening a drawer and pulling out a set of invisible alligator leashes. I crawled under the table and put the “leashes” on the “alligators” and walked them out the door, stepping gingerly over them like a dog walker with a pack of puppies at their feet.
When the door slammed shut my grandmother with the relief of exasperation said
Finally! Thank you. I am so hungry.
And so she sat down at the table where I used to eat puffed rice and apple juice for breakfast in the summer as a child. She ate half of a little cup of yogurt and a few bites of chicken and took a few pills while I sat and watched.
Alice never learned to say yes to my grandmother in her addled state but I am convinced that my grandmother’s reality just needed to be acknowledged.
Similarly in all of us there are voices with insane requests, bizarre world views and impossible visions that howl and nag us. But often, like Alice, we ignore and say no and “be reasonable.” How can we say yes to our craziest features? If being assuaged somehow can they become more docile and friendly. After all, all we ever want is to be seen. Your crazy wants to be seen as well.
My grandmother died a few months later but that concentrated period is when I loved her most. I learned about gardening and cards and innumerable other things from her earlier in my life. But the final gift she gave me was completely untethered. It was better than any $20 check she ever wrote on my birthday. It was the gift of being able to just giving kindness because that was all I had to give her.
And that was all she could receive.