…because some thoughts are worth remembering
I am fortunate to still have a living grandparent. With a bad back and unable to walk much at all, my grandmother is now in a care home. Being over 90, she is unable to keep recent memories in check. By the time our 10 minute phone conversation is over, she would have repeated the fact that she just had lunch about 5 times.
My mother told me that in her recent visit, my grandmother talked about her mother, my great-grandmother, Ume-san. I am fortunate to have known her, too. I had a vivid picture of her in my head as my mind wandered back to my childhood when we would visit her during summer vacations, remembering how she would insist we all ate more in her thick Ise dialect. The reverie was prematurely interrupted when my mother clarified that my grandmother spoke of Ume-san in the present tense, wondering why she hasn’t visited recently. My mother was quick to explain my grandmother that because Ume-san was much older than her, she wouldn’t be here any more. My grandmother nodded, and moved onto the next topic.
My mother briefed me further, that my grandmother is also confused about places as well as time. Her room is in the first floor of the care home, and she thinks her other relatives, young and old, are upstairs. My mother was concerned about my grandmother’s dementia getting worse. I prepared myself emotionally before I called the care home. I told myself I should follow the improv method, “Yes, and…”, where I would roll with whatever my grandmother said, without correcting her and taking whatever she presented as a premise for me to build on.
I told my grandmother I was calling her because it was the “Respect for the Aged” Day. “What? That was back in May,” she said. “Oh, OK,” I responded, thinking it was a rocky start. “We were just eating lunch,” she followed up as if it was an answer to a question someone asked her. “Do you remember Mom visiting you last week?” I asked, curious what she might say next. “She’s upstairs eating. They are all upstairs eating.” Before I could say “Oh, good,” my grandmother in an admonishing tone, told me I shouldn’t worry about her. “I’m not, grandma. I’m taking care of my life.” “Good!” she seemed satisfied. She then made sure to ask about my husband, and wanted me to offer her congratulations for finding a great job after we moved, followed by “we were eating lunch”.
At that point, I stopped seeing my grandmother as suffering from dementia. She wasn’t confused at all (although she did a good job confusing the rest of us). I recalled a book called Einstein’s Dreams, where each vignettes in the book depicted a variation of a situation with the same characters but time and space had a different relationship in each of the stories. In some stories, time would stand still, or it would be in a loop. My grandmother had created a world where time stopped passing forward, in one direction linearly. In her reality, people who cared for her, as a child or an elderly, already deceased or still alive, were close to her, always “eating upstairs”.
I realized that maybe as we get older, our relationship with time and space can change. In fact, things are rarely linear. A period of a few months for an infant means walking or not, while a few months for an adult might not mean much. A few months for an elderly might mean walking then not. With mobile phones and VoIP, my parents are within my ear shot, yet that stretch from my pillow to the alarm clock seems so far.
In her isolation, my grandmother has somehow successfully warped the fabric of space and time to be close to her loved ones.
“So, we just had lunch” she repeated. “Oh, should you go now?” I asked, sensing she was eager for whatever, wherever or whenever that was next. “Yes, but call me this evening.” “OK,” I said, knowing I wasn’t, because I will be just upstairs from her.
Photo: Diorama of a merchant town in Osaka, Japan in the past