It’s a surreal experience to sit through the same grandfather’s funeral twice in one lifetime. And yet, here I sit, surrounded by family and mouthing the words of “Amazing Grace” as the pastor strums along on his guitar.
I’m ashamed that I don’t know the second verse of “Amazing Grace,” and when I look across the room and see my grandmother, who has Alzheimer’s, singing along at the top of her voice with every word, it makes me even more ashamed.
Today is a good day. MeMe’s mind is sharp; her eyes are bright. It should be a sad occasion, but instead, it feels joyful and sweet. She seems happy, and that makes us all happy.
My grandfather, MeMe’s husband, has been dead for over sixteen years, but in her damaged mind, he died only recently. His death had been troubling her for a few weeks. She had begun asking Daddy and my aunt Claire daily when the funeral was going to be. One particularly hard day, she was ready to leave for the cemetery when Daddy arrived for his daily visit.
Daddy and Claire finally decided that a funeral was in order, something to put her mind at rest and give her some resolution.
Sitting here now, watching her smile and sing along with hymns that are as familiar to her as her own name, I know that they were right.
Alzheimer’s is a nasty disease. It picks and chooses the memories it destroys, leaving some and taking others without any rhyme or reason.
MeMe has vivid memories of the past. Daddy can ask her about neighbors they had thirty or forty years ago, and she remembers their names and the stories surrounding them. Most of the time, she lives in this vivid past, speaking of her Mama and Papa as if they were in the next room, speaking of her children as if they were still teenagers.
I often wonder where the present fits into this past, because, thankfully, MeMe still remembers the names of those in her present. When I visit, I see the recognition in her eyes, and I feel relieved that we have this, just this one thing that we can all still hold on to. In MeMe’s world grown grand-children and long-dead parents can exist together outside of any physical boundaries of time and space.
It’s a world you could almost envy, if you didn’t know any better.
Today, in this present, her smile is infectious, toothless though it may be. She beams it at all of us and keeps saying, “It’s a shame that something like this had to happen to bring us all together.”
And it is a shame.
We visit the Nursing Home as often as possible. Daddy and Claire are there nearly every day. But it’s hard. Life is moving on in the world outside of those walls that keep MeMe so closed in, life is moving on, and because it is, it’s easy to forget.
Which is pretty ironic when you think about it.
Daddy is constantly reminding us all that the people inside the Nursing Home are still people. They still have hopes and dreams and sadness. They have good days and bad days and days when they might not want to go on at all. They're trapped inside a place that reduces them to nearly nothing if we let it. So we mustn't let it, and thus, he reminds me often that those inside are people just like us.
I have to keep repeating this thought like a mantra when I go down the long corridors of the facility. I make it a point to meet the old eyes of each resident I pass, smiling kindly and offering a softly-spoken "hello" and "how are you."
Yes, it's hard to go there. It's hard to see those people trapped. It's hard to see MeMe in a tiny little room that's shared with another resident, a virtual stranger, whose name constantly escapes MeMe’s damaged mind.
But on days like today, when off-key church hymns fill the stale air and make an otherwise sad place happy, when MeMe smiles like she used to, and you almost forget where you are, it’s easy.