For the past few years, I've slowly watched Dementia take bits and pieces of my healthy hero, my Grandmother, to some faraway place. What started with retelling stories within an hour of conversation has now progressed to her asking the same question every 5 minutes or so. In denial the first year, I told myself it was just the typical memory loss that comes with aging. However, last Christmas I was stunned when I noticed she would hardly say a word during dinner conversations. The tone in her voice seemed different and her smile appeared reflexive. All I could see was this shell of a person that used to be my Grandmother. I stared into her eyes and wondered where she had gone. She was sitting right in front of me and yet I didn't recognize her. Not knowing what to do or say or even how to act around her, I put up a wall to protect myself from the sting. After spending a lifetime of confiding in her about everything and finding solace in her words, I suddenly found it difficult to talk to her. I no longer knew what to talk about. Our conversations were short and I wasn't sure how to adapt to the changing roles of our relationship. She had always been my comforter, my consoler, my biggest supporter. How on earth was I let go of needing that from her? How could I begin to understand what she needs from me?
Resolution came in May. With the dread of confronting my angst in my stomach, the family sat around the table eating and sharing stories of our lives since we last were together at Christmas. Suddenly, my Grandmother cracked a joke. I can't even remember what she said, but it wasn't a question or a repeated story or a statement -- it was her own original thought on the current conversation happening at the table. Not only was it her thought, but it was with her humor. It was exactly the thing I would've heard her say a few years ago. And in that moment I saw her genuine smile and heard her authentic laugh. I caught a glimpse of the person I had always known and had missed so much over the past few years -- all in her eyes. I realized my Grandmother, my hero, was still here in that shell. I recognized I had been so foolish to put up that wall and push her away because I couldn't figure out how to deal with the changing situation.
Just a few weeks ago, over the Thanksgiving holiday, I did something with my Grandmother we hadn't done in years. We spent a full afternoon playing cards. It didn't seem to bother me that I had to remind her about every 5 minutes how the wild card could be played or that she needed to discard every round. Instead it amazed me that she would catch herself drawing seven cards and say, "Oops, seven is for Uno. Five is for Skip Bo." She would laugh and put the two extra cards back. There wasn't nearly as much gossiping or exchanging of tall tales as there once was years ago, but as she won almost every game, she would look over at me with her smile and give a wink.
And just like that, something as simple as connecting over an old favorite card game with a smile and wink is precisely what we both needed.
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