Friday, January 9, 2015

My grandfather's memory

(Frankie with his great-grandfather at 6 weeks and 8 months old)

Lillian called me from the other end of the pool. "Theresa! Come quick! Grandpa just asked where the other baby is!"

I had just returned from walking on the beach with my husband and baby on our last day in Florida. As soon as I heard this, I hurried to her.

"Wow, he remembered there are two of them?" I told her. "I'm impressed!"

Then, turning to our grandfather, I held my baby toward him.

"Look, Grandpa," I said. "Here's the other baby!"

I sat down next to her on the pool chair and plunked my baby down next to my sister's, where our grandfather could easily see them.

"Do you know who is the mother of this baby?" Lillian gently encouraged him in Spanish. "Do you remember her?"

Grandpa glanced at my baby and then stared blankly ahead, as he almost always does these days.

We sat and talked to him for a while, telling him stories and explaining who we were. We told him that we are the twins, Theresa and Lillian—his oldest grandchildren—and that these were our babies.

"This one is named Francisco, like you," I told him. "He's named after you, Grandpa." I tell him this every time I see him, hoping he will understand for at least a few minutes.

Lillian said, "You remember your son J--? These are his grandsons. Can you believe your little boy is a grandfather?"

Grandpa just sat and stared as though we weren't there. Finally, after several minutes, he looked at the babies and said in Spanish, "This one has blue eyes"—he pointed at Frankie—"and that one has black"—he pointed at my sister's son.

"Yes! Francisco has blue eyes just like you," Lillian applauded him. "Isn't that incredible, Grandpa?"

Grandpa reached out a finger and tentatively touched little Frankie's hand. The father of six children and grandfather of twenty, Grandpa has always loved babies.

I stared into my grandfather's blue eyes and tried hard to share my sister's positive behavior. Instead I felt my own eyes filling up with tears.

Recently one of my little siblings told me, "I can't remember a time before Grandpa was like this." That broke my heart because, to me, this never has been and never will be who he really is.

Our grandfather is a brave man who fled Cuba in his twenties as a medical student and made a life over here for his brand-new bride. He is a faithful man who raised six children with her and lectored at church every Sunday. He is a patriotic man who served in the United States Air Force with gratitude for the country that gave him and his family refuge. He is a generous man who worked incredibly hard to send his children to the best colleges in America and took most of his grandchildren to visit his birthplace in southern Spain. Now he is a man who suffers from advanced dementia and rarely recognizes anyone or talks to us anymore.

Sometimes we see traces of his old self. My aunt told me that last year she asked Grandpa if he knew what month it was. He didn't say anything but looked carefully around the room. He spotted a bowl of mangoes and said, "It's the time when mangoes are ripe... April?" She commented how clever that was to use clues in the room to figure out the answer. I also thought how most people today wouldn't be able to tell the time of year by what produce is in season, and how much that little act was a product of growing up in a different time. On Monday, my sister told me that he saw my grandmother coming towards him as he was sitting by the pool, and he turned to Lillian and whispered, "Here comes the crazy lady!" We laughed when she told me the story, mostly at the sad irony of it—Grandma is the one who takes care of him and has to impose all kinds of "rules" that he doesn't like (such as, "Walk on the sidewalk, not in the street filled with traffic"). After Lillian and I had questioned him for a while, he got tired of our talking and growled at me, a clear signal that now he wanted to be left alone.

My grandma and I were reminiscing about their trip to visit me in DC two years ago, and how much better Grandpa was doing then. At the time, he used to run away a lot. It sounds funny, and it kind of was in retrospect, but at the time it was really scary. We would be sitting at a museum or restaurant and suddenly notice that Grandpa was gone. He would have lit out down the block as fast as he could go. He never said where he was going, exactly, or why, except that he wanted to "escape." We thought he just didn't want to be at whatever museum or restaurant we had chosen, but I wonder now if it was his own life he was trying to escape. How frustrating it must have been for him, who was always so smart and in control, to gradually lose so many of the traits that defined him. He has stopped trying to run away, now, which seemed like a good development at first—until Grandma pointed out why. It's because he just doesn't care anymore, or show interest, in anything.

Grandma also reminded me of something else I'd forgotten from that trip. We took her and Grandpa to the CIC where Grandpa found a beautiful icon of Our Lady of Perpetual Help that he wanted to buy. It was a very large icon and Grandma wasn't sure how they would fly home with it, but Grandpa insisted. His mother, Maria, had a devotion to Our Lady of Perpetual Help and, even in his confused mental state, it reminded him of her. So they brought it home, somehow, and it hangs prominently in their living room. That particular image meant nothing to Frank and me at the time, but now that we go to a parish by that name that has become an important and treasured part of our lives, I marvel at the continuity of this devotion generations later and am grateful for this small connection to the past.

I miss my grandfather. I miss the man he used to be, the man he truly is. I have no words to describe the pain of seeing how he has changed. I am blessed with a loving family and we enjoyed a wonderful family reunion, but amid the happiness of being together there was—and is—the sharp sting of this shared sorrow too.


  1. Oh Tess, even in the midst of such pain, this is such a beautiful tribute to your grandfather And what a precious moment that he remembered there were two babies! What a gift!

  2. Tess, this is beautiful. You really captured the the acute pain and joy of the complication situation of an ailing loved one. My grandpa had Parkinson's disease, so while he was mentally sharp till the end, he was physically out of control. He also had to take so many medicines that really messed with his personality and eventually his mind. There was no getting around it: it sucked, most of all for Grandpa. But there was beauty in how Grandma and later my Mom and Dad took care of him. We loved him so much despite his disease, and we even found some of the Parkinson's symptoms endearing, especially now in retrospect. It's so complicated. Thank you for articulating it so beautifully. It sounds like your family loving and wonderful.

    1. *your family is so loving and wonderful.

  3. Tess, this is such a beautiful post to read. Read it last week and have been thinking about it all weekend. Though my own grandfather did not deal with dementia, he was chronically ill, and when he died, a few of my cousins and my sister also said they don't really remember him healthy. This is so heartfelt and keeps your grandfather's memory alive. I love the thread of Our Lady of Perpetual Help in your life and his. Such a powerful connection.

    How lovely for Frankie to have great-grandparents. I would be so thankful if my living grandmother was here to meet my children -- though who knows when that will happen!

  4. Dearest Tess,

    This is bittersweet heartache. I have sympathy for your grief.

    Have you heard of the book called "Ambiguous Loss" (http://www.amazon.com/Ambiguous-Loss-Learning-Unresolved-Grief/dp/0674003810)? It has helped me think through some losses, and perhaps it would help you as well.

    In Christ