The Long Goodbye

My father's father came and visited last week.  Dad came with his dad as minder, nurse, and tour-guide.  Grandpa Jim doesn't go anywhere by himself anymore, as he is deep in the grip of dementia.  He lives with his kids in alternating two-month shifts, traveling back and forth between my parents in Oregon and my aunt and uncle in Texas.  

I am not at all sure that he had any idea who I was most of the time we were together.  And yet, that was somehow not nearly as troubling as one might expect it to be.  He knows that he can trust the people around him, and that is enough.

That is one of the great saving graces of his situation -- he very rarely gets agitated over his diminished capacity.  He may not be sure where he is or what he's just done, but he doesn't get visibly upset over it.  He is amiable and content in the moment.  You may have to answer the same question six times in five minutes, but you don't have to try to calm a frustrated and confused man.  And we are very grateful for that.

They say the long term memories are the last to go, and some of those are clearly still there, although his access to them seems intermittent and erratic.  He could recall with crystal clarity the address of the house where he lived when he first moved his family to California a half century ago, but when we actually visited that house, it didn't seem at all familiar.  (Granted, the color of the house, the landscaping, and the street had all changed significantly, but even as Dad pointed out the few static features of the place, there was no recognition.)  He also couldn't remember, 20 minutes later, that we had been there at all.  

At one point he fixated on the name of a stepsister-in-law he hadn't seen in decades, but couldn't seem to track with the connections as we tried to draw the line from the name he could remember to other nearer and dearer relations.  

The trip was Grandpa's idea -- although, by the time he got here, he didn't remember where he was headed, much less that he had instigated the trip.  Several weeks ago, Dad asked his father what he wanted to do.  Dad was thinking in terms of the fairly limited range of Grandpa's daily activities -- go for a walk, work in the garden, do a crossword puzzle, watch Fox News.  So he was surprised when his father said he wanted to go to Ventura.  But with a little thought and research, he found a way to make it work.  So they flew down on Monday, stayed for three days, and returned north on Friday.

I live in a culture that is obsessed with instant gratification, but that also teaches that the things that matter are the things that last.  It feels strange, then, to invest a week in creating a series of instants that really are gone as soon as they're over.  We took Grandpa around to visit important people and important places even though he was unlikely to remember them later the same day, much less in weeks or months to come.  But it was important.  It was important to my father and me to be with him on this pilgrimage.  It was important to the long-time friends who love my grandfather and are delighted to spend time with him even when he can't remember their names.  And it was important to Jim, in the moment, even if he wasn't quite sure where he was, and even if he wouldn't recall it in hours' or minutes' time.  It was important, and it was an honor to be a part of it all.


Athena said...

Absolutely lovely, and altogether true.

Whenever I think about writing about him, my courage fails me.

Somehow it's easier to come to terms with my own grandparents' heart-wrenching decline than it is to witness his. I don't know why.

Anyway, I'm so glad you wrote this.

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