I'm thankful for a lot of things, and it's pointless to write a blog post about them. This isn't a post about Thanksgiving, this is a post about my grandma and I'm forcing myself to write it because hopefully writing it can help me figure out exactly what made me completely lose it for about ninety seconds at dinner the other night, and maybe writing it can help me remind myself that of course I'm thankful that my grandma, despite her limitations, is alive, seems happy, can show glimpses of the person that she was.... I tried to write this post yesterday, when the emotions were more fresh, but I couldn't figure out exactly what I was trying to say, so the window stayed open in my web browser and it never got written. This morning, I'm trying again.
My wife and I had Thanksgiving together for the first time-- our three previous Thanksgivings were all spent separately-- last year I was out in LA (and had Thanksgiving dinner with a friend at a Chinese restaurant in the San Gabriel Valley), and the previous two years I went to my relatives and my wife had Thanksgiving with her parents. Her parents invited my family, so there were ten of us all together--
My grandma's working memory doesn't work since her stroke -- I have pretty much the same phone conversation with her every day when I call, she asks where I'm living and how I'm doing, she says she loves me-- some days I catch her at a good moment and we can have something that resembles a conversation, I say something that sparks something in her memory, she remembers I'm married, or we talk about what I'm making for dinner, or about some writing I did, and the back-and-forth can almost feel real, like it's still my grandma and like we're actually talking to each other. Some days she remembers she had a stroke, and we talk for a few minutes about how it's frustrating for her because she knows her memory isn't working and she doesn't know how to work around it and she feels like a burden because she can't do anything for herself and knows she isn't the person she used to be. Some days she's confused by something she's just been watching on television and she thinks something strange is going on in her house and she tries to explain it. The explaining part of her brain works-- she's constantly trying to make sense of what her memory is telling her. In the moment, she makes sense. The things she says make sense, she knows what she's saying. But because the inputs don't stick, sentence to sentence it's hard for anything to progress in a conversation. The other day we were talking about how it's my six-month wedding anniversary, she said congratulations, that's so exciting, and I should put Nina on the phone so she can wish her... and she paused... "a happy new year?" She had gotten to the end of the sentence, and knew that the previous few words meant she was talking about wishing someone something, but by the time she got there, she forgot what it was she was talking about, so she guessed, and the guess made sense. Her guesses make sense-- her memory just doesn't work. But part of what has kept me motivated to keep calling, and trying, and attempting real conversation-- besides the fact that I love her and know this isn't her fault and don't want to feel like I'm abandoning her and leaving her to sit at home all day without any human contact-- but part of what makes it not just an obligation and has made me think it's possible to continue to try and have an actual relationship is the feeling that maybe something is sticking-- not necessarily in her working memory, but somewhere deeper, she knows what's going on-- somewhere deeper, she's still herself, we still have some kind of relationship, there's some essence of her that is still there. I mean, she knows who I am when I call, she's excited to talk to me, she says all the right things--
Thanksgiving was hard. We didn't really expect her to remember having met my wife's family a bunch of times, and she didn't, but the social part of her hasn't been much affected, she's able to be in a social situation and act in a reasonably appropriate way, it's just that every few minutes she forgets who some people are and needs to be reminded of the relationships between everyone and what's going on. So it's a lot of explaining and re-explaining who someone is, and how they're connected to everyone else. And it unavoidably gets uncomfortable when for the twentieth time, you're answering "and how is everyone here related," again. She'll get stuck on an idea-- "first meetings of the family are difficult, but don't worry, we're not murderers or anything like that," was something she kept trying to start a conversation with. But we got through dinner, she was having a nice time-- her mood is actually really good, and physically she's doing well, not in any pain, and even when she can't remember who someone is, and new people seem like strangers, she likes strangers, she's not anxious about social situations, she talks to people, she makes sense-- and then she went to the bathroom and was in there for about fifteen minutes and it's like somewhere in there, she hit the reset button. It was past her bedtime, and she was more and more confused, and if something wasn't directly in her line of vision, she really wasn't aware that it existed. So we were reminding her who my wife is, and I'm showing her the wedding band, and, yes, that's her mother, and that's her father-- and I got up for a second to carry some dessert plates into the kitchen, and I hear her say, "so she was married to Jeremy-- but what happened to Jeremy? Did he die?" And my mom says no, he didn't die, he's right here. And I hear her say, "but I feel like something happened-- did he die for a while and then come back? He wasn't dead?" And I come back in and I show her, I'm still here, I just went into the kitchen, and she looks at me, and knows who I am, and everyone's laughing because the reality of it is that it's uncomfortable and some of the things she says end up sounding funny, even if she's just trying to make sense of what her mind is telling her--
And I kind of lost it -- I was sort of laughing but then I was crying, and I couldn't really contain it for a minute, my wife and I went into the kitchen, went to the bathroom to just take a deep breath-- I think what got to me is that if she's not even solid on whether someone is alive or dead, if it's all so fleeting, you're talking to her one second, you've vanished the next-- then, sadly, is there really anything still there? Is there really still a relationship, is there really any essence of the person still inside if the memory is so flawed and so impermanent? What are either of us getting out of a phone conversation? How much of her is really still her? And it made me really sad, and made me feel really helpless in the moment.
I talked to her on the phone yesterday evening, and it was like it always is-- she said she remembered she saw me the other day, that we celebrated a holiday, and we should do that more often. We had the half-conversation that we often have, it didn't feel different. She knows who I am, I know that. And even if she didn't, it's not her fault, it just is. It was late, it was a long day for her, it was a lot of meeting and re-meeting and re-re-meeting new people, it was a lot of social time, it must have been overwhelming for her. I can rationalize it all, I can make it make sense. It's just really hard. It's just really hard to remember the person she was and every day talk to the person she now is, and recognize the huge gulf between those two people.
That's all. Happy Thanksgiving.