On My Grandmother and Grief

I read Slate pretty much every day.

Well, when I type “read,” I mean I scan the headlines, and if something pops up that looks promising, I’ll take a look.

I saw a headline today — “What Americans Don’t Understand About Grief.” It’s a series of articles, beginning back in February, in which Meghan O’Rourke examines the nature of grief, brought to the fore for her by her mother’s death from cancer two months earlier. I’m not really sure why this series of articles popped up randomly today — the most recent article was posted two weeks ago — but I was curious, and I took a look.

At the end of December, I met my niece for the first time. She had been born the day after Thanksgiving, and my father and I took a trip to Raleigh to see her.

My sister and I, one afternoon while I was in Raleigh, asked me how my grandmother was doing. My grandmother is eighty-eight (or maybe it’s eighty-seven, I can never quite recall), and she suffers from dementia. It first became noticeable in 2000 or so, and it was easy to deal with; she would repeat herself on the phone, and it was easier to pretend that I wasn’t repeating a conversation than to call her on it. (My other sister, unfortunately, was never able to do that, and her phone conversations with my grandmother could turn heated quickly because of it.) By 2005, her dementia was pronounced.

Today, she has no idea where she is. Oh, she knows she’s in Baltimore, but she has no idea where that is in relation to anything. North Carolina is just down the street. We’re minutes away from the beach and the mountains. New Jersey or Delaware is over the hill. Air Force One lands in the backyard all the time.

She has no conception of her age or of time. She doesn’t understand night and day any longer. Every meal is breakfast — or should be breakfast. Her father, who died a few months before I was born, in her mind died just a few years ago, perhaps only two or three. (She told me one day that her father, a man I never knew, obviously, had hated me fiercely.) She cannot recall how many children she had.

When I was growing up, my grandmother was a dour, unlikeable woman. She was alternatively mean, spiteful, hateful, or histrionic. She was the master of the putdown. She lived a regimented life. I cannot imagine that she ever smiled or laughed. I doubt she ever knew mirth or happiness.

The woman she is today is different. In some ways, the dementia has softened her personality. She never seems mean or hateful or spiteful; her attention span simply is not long enough anymore. She is easily roused to anger, especially when her perception of the world, faulty though it is, is challenged. In those angry moments, there is a cruelty to her anger, callous because she cannot contextualize the reasons for it, and the anger becomes primal in its fury.

The most noticeable change in her personality, though, is in her sense of humor. My grandmother was one dour in ways that would have given a Puritan or an Amish patriarch pause. Today, she giggles like a child. Virtually anything said to her provokes a giggling outburst, whether relevant or not. She giggles all the time. It is the saddest — and most painful — sound I have heard in all my life.

I realized, driving back from North Carolina, that someday my grandmother will die. It could be within a year. It could be longer. Eventually, it will happen. It could be by accident — she tripped and fell in the yard two weeks ago — or her body may simply give up and pack it in.

But the woman that finally dies won’t be, in many ways, my grandmother. It will be the shell of my grandmother that dies. My grandmother — the dour, humorless woman — died many years ago when the dementia took her. I cannot imagine that my grandmother would have approved in any way of the shambling husk that remains.

I’m not sure that I ever liked my grandmother when I was growing up. Yet I have mourned her passing, at least that of her spirit. I may not have liked her, I may not have known her as well as I should have, I may not have had the relationship with her and my grandfather that he would have liked, but she had hopes and dreams and a life and a place in the world, and I can — and have — mourn the loss of all of those.

But will I mourn the woman that remains today when she passes?

I don’t know. In some ways, I detest her. I can have no meaningful conversation with her, and for someone who works with words, whose life is words, I find that lack painful. In other ways, I feel a profound sadness for her; she is now a child, perhaps three or four years-old, trapped inside an ancient body.

In truth, I think I will be relieved when the day comes. I will be sad, yes, that it happened, but I will also be glad that an ongoing psychic pain will have been ended.

I joke that Dan Quayle once said, “It is a terrible thing to lose one’s mind,” but there’s great wisdom in that malapropism — my grandmother has lost her mind, and it turned her into a person that she, nor anyone else, would have ever wished her to be.

Someday, I will have to eulogize my grandmother, and to that end I have already begun to write what I would say. Indeed, some of that you, reading this where you are, have read some of it.

Reading the series of articles at Slate helped to me realize that, in many ways, I have already begun to mourn her. Only, this is a mourning that has lasted years.

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