My mother-in-law is the sole, firm, connecting pivot point for us to my husband's family now, although she has no idea this is the case. Already having lost cognitive strength in the two years before my father-in-law died, she has been fading steadily over the past 18 months, with a noticeable acceleration in the last several weeks as weight and strength drop daily. She still seems to enjoy our visits, however, and as long as we dial down our expectations and ramp up our patience, we enjoy them as well despite conversations that loop over and over the same terrain. She likes to tell us how well the staff treat her and then often moves on to exclaim indignantly about residents who don't appreciate the good care they receive. We sympathize and agree and then we nudge her onto a new topic, generally by reminding her of some happy instance or other from the past.
|A recent visit with GG: Nola drew a picture of her GG (short for GreatGrandma) teaching kindergarten and loving it). Her uncle (who I, of course, remember clearly being hugged by his Grandma when he was just 6) is pretty amused.|
Or I simply take out my phone or iPad and I delight her with photos of her great-grandchildren. Paul chuckles that when he told her about our youngest granddaughter's arrival, he had the pleasure of telling her the news six times, each time having it greeted with equal delight, as if heard for the first time. It's very true that nothing makes her as happy as talking about wee ones. She doesn't remember their names, much less keep them straight (although she always knows my husband when he arrives, and always asks about me, generally by name), but she's convinced that whomever they are, they're cute and they're lovable ("You're so pretty/sweet/smart," she tells them when they visit. "I love you so much." -- not a bad default conversational move to end up with).
Some family members regularly label her condition as Alzheimer's, although my understanding is that the late-onset variety can't properly be diagnosed except post-portem, by autopsy. Or they say she's senile, or has dementia. Probably true enough, but I really prefer the term my mother's doctor used, a descriptive term that is so much less loaded: Cognitive Impairment (mom's was Mild for some time before progressing to Mild to Moderate near her end, when it was probably amplified by all the pain meds).
I like this term so much better because it leaves room for me to see how much of the person I knew is still there (while recognizing that, particularly for early-onset Alzheimer's, the diagnosis is useful in acknowledging the severity of the need for support). And here's a "for instance":
A few weeks ago, we were visiting Mom (I've called her that from early in our marriage; she's been a second mom to me for over 40 years now) and talking about how much she loves little ones, and how much they love her. A treasure of a kindergarten teacher for several generations in her community, she reminded us that children always sense that she likes them, and she noted that when other residents had wee visitors, those little feet would often direct their small owners right over to Mom's chair. And then she leaned forward to me, and her face coloured up a bit in anticipation, I could see, of a sheepish confession.
"You know," she said, "when all my grandchildren were babies, I just loved them so much. Sometimes I really wanted to take over. I really had to work hard to stop myself. It was really hard to let their mothers look after them sometimes." Cutest confession ever, truly. I didn't have the heart to tell her that we'd already noticed. And that she didn't always manage to stop herself!
I keep thinking about the spontaneous, vulnerable, self-aware honesty of that confession. I remember what a warm and wonderful, energetic and generous, funny and humble and clever and kind grandmother my children had, and I hope they take some of those memories forward. She could certainly be the classic, annoying Mother-in-Law at times, with her notions of the best ways to clean, bake, raise children, juggle work and home, yes she could. But overall, she was a gem, and I hope she is remembered in stories my children tell to their own children, perhaps even, someday, to their grandchildren.
And I have to say that being at the verge of her passing, the last of our four parents, I'm ever so aware of how quickly the first six years of our own grandparenthood have passed. Nola turned six this week, and Hattie turns two; they're moving quickly toward that space where grandparents take a back seat to peers. A big part of my decision to retire has to do with wanting to make the most of that fleeting time when the natural affinity between little ones and ageing ones is at its peak. . .
At the same time, I want to maintain enough other interests and activities and networks that when the inevitable day comes that my weekend with the grandkids gets cancelled in favour of a birthday sleepover, no young teen needs to feel guilty about neglecting poor old Nana. . . .
You know, I'm trying to round this post off to a conclusion, having come back and revised and edited, and I can see how much of what I'm thinking is not on the screen, not on the page. What's still submerged, left for me to bring to the surface if/when I'm ready, is my awareness of how much gets forgotten, how much gets undone, and my ongoing meditation over what persists, what ends up mattering. I don't think rounding off to a conclusion works. . . . so I'll just open up to your comments, your stories, your wisdom, and see where the conversation takes us. Okay?