*Please note the following is reflective of my limited personal experiences and impressions.*
On Christmas Eve, my Grandma – who has dementia – said, “Lydia! Who is that boy sitting next to you?” It was my younger brother, and when I told her so, she said, “He looks just like the boy sitting next him.” The boy sitting next to him was her son and our uncle, and while the resemblance between them is striking, that moment meant so much to me, because in that moment, my Grandma – who has dementia – knew who I was.
My maternal grandmother – we called her Granny – passed away nearly twelve years ago. She, too, suffered from Alzheimer’s and dementia. And it was her I dreamed of last night.
I was standing at the front of her house, looking down the hallway, through the dining and living areas, and she was standing in the kitchen, which is where she almost always was when I saw her in that house. She just stood there, beyond the gate, dressed all in white, looking at me. In the dream, I knew I was just a stranger to her, and in her house no less, and I called out, “Hi, Granny,” so she would know I wasn’t an intruder, so she would know how we were connected. Still, she didn’t know me, and I think, was afraid of me. I thought that was just as well; after all, neither one of us belonged there – her, because she wasn’t alive anymore, and I, because that house had been sold many years ago and I had no claim to it.
I knew the dream was significant as soon as I woke from it. For one thing, a friend prayed very specifically over my dreams earlier this week, and for another, this dream was vivid. (I dream often, but rarely remember specific details when I wake.) But I didn’t understand its significance immediately. I had to pray and ponder.
We are going to lose my Grandma soon. Hospice was called in just a few days before I saw her on Christmas Eve. I think that’s why it meant so much to me that she had a moment when she knew who I was, even if it was only a moment – that was likely to be my last time seeing her alive. She has lived a long, full life, of course, but I think she is the first person I have known and loved – I mean, really known and loved – that I will lose.
She never hesitated to share her stories with me, you know. Was always willing to tell me about herself and her family when I developed an interest in family history. She even read every story I shared with her. And trust me, some of them were truly terrible, but she always encouraged me to write. We shared stories.
Everything I know about my maternal grandmother, I learned secondhand. I didn’t know her. And even in her lucid moments, I’m not certain she would have known who I was. She might have known I was her granddaughter, but I doubt she would have been able to name me, or anything about me. We shared no stories.
There are many reasons for this lack, not the least of which was her stilted relationship with my parents. Our family visited her a few times a year – usually around the Coast Guard Festival and around Christmas. She always sent us home with big bags of candy, but I had the impression early on that my presence wasn’t particularly important to her; in fact, I felt like a nuisance, an unwelcome intruder. We were often restricted to the same places as the dog on our visits – the kitchen and the back room on our visits. I don’t think I even saw the entire house until after she’d gone into the nursing home and we were cleaning it out to sell. She wasn’t open, and I wasn’t comfortable enough with her to ask her anything.
But it was more than that. I wasn’t curious enough to ask her anything. She was perpetually dismissive, and by the time it was apparent she was losing her memory, I wanted nothing to do with her, either. Thankfully, I was at an age where that wasn’t up to me, and my Mom brought my younger siblings and I out to visit her every Thursday. And thankfully, my Mom had the foresight to ask things for me before her memory was completely gone, because I was indifferent at the time.
I rarely give her a second thought even now, unlike my Grandma, who is almost always in my thoughts these days, so I could not fathom why she was the one in my dream last night. There was the dementia link, of course, but these women were so different, it didn’t make sense that I should be thinking of one and dreaming of the other.
And as I looked down that hallway again in my mind’s eye at my maternal grandmother and she looked back at me, afraid of intruding and being intruded upon, I realized: we are the same. I cannot fault her for restricting people to certain areas of her life, because I do the same thing. It’s a protective mechanism to keep from showing anything that can be used against us. We’re told we’re cold and unfeeling, when really, we feel so much we want to tear out our beating hearts. You just don’t see it, because we don’t let you, because impenetrability is our strength. We show little or nothing as we do whatever needs doing, and we wonder why people can’t see how much we care, how they can think we don’t love them, how they can assume the meanest and very worst things about us.
And I am tempted to accept this as my lot in life as her granddaughter, but she was not my only instructor in the school of strength.
My Grandma taught me to be open with people, to be open to people. Even when it means sharing stories of our imperfections, or sharing our imperfect impressions of ourselves and the things through which we’ve lived. She stands at the end of her life with a man who I imagine knows just about everything there is to know about her and still holds her hand, because if she remembers nothing else, she remembers what they’ve shared. She remembered me, if only briefly, because we shared stories.
I want to stand at the end of my life like that, you know? But I also want to pick and choose what I let people into.
And if this dream has made me realize anything, it’s that I cannot have it both ways.
Two strong women, in my opinion. Two different kinds of strength – the kind that keeps other people out, and the kind that lets other people in. I belong to both, and both taught me their strength, and unlike my dimpled smile, which grandmother’s strength I adopt is not up to genetics.
It is character, and it is chosen.