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By Marie-Eve Bernier
She would playfully ask the same two questions.
“Do you prefer to sit on a rocking chair or a stable armchair?” and “Do you prefer sweet or salty treats?”.
This was her failproof ‘scientific’ test to figure which genes her grandchildren had inherited. My grandmother’s maiden name is Fillion, which meant she liked to sit on stable chairs and preferred salted snacks, while my grandfather’s surname is Cloutier, otherwise known for enjoying rocking chairs and having a sweet tooth. She would take great amusement if one of her grandchildren showed traits of both genes, such as if one liked salted chips but also enjoyed a rocking chair.
In her mind, this oddity of preferences could only be explained by gene allocation. She would group her three children and five grandchildren into Fillion, Cloutier and mixed genes. This game was repeated with every visit “Salty or sweet?”, “Rocking chair or not?” she would ask in her typical lighting round of questions. She never tired of this game. I can so easily look back on this memory. She is unable to remember this.
To put it simply, if wealth is measured in memories, my grandmother is poor. Dementia has taken over and she is unable to retrieve her memories, or very few of them. The little she remembers is jumbled up, making it next to impossible for her to connect the dots. She is incomprehensible to herself and others. This is an immeasurable injustice considering my grandfather suffered from Alzheimer’s in the last years of his life. A repeated atrocity left for her loved ones to witness for a second time around.
The impact of the disease leaves her in the most vulnerable states. There is no safe place for her. Society does not value people like her. Her survival and wellbeing lands in the hands of my mother, aunt and uncle. Being in the loving full-time care of my parents and her two other children is a privilege not many in her situation have. Being unaware of herself, others, and her surroundings requires round the clock supervision. She is cared for, protected and occupied, every minute is accounted for. How else could she be safe? This lifeline is generously provided by her own children who she can only vaguely remember, an invisible anchor for her to hold on to. Her trust and faith in them is completely blind. It pains me to watch my family go through this.
I am concerned about my parents having to care for her full-time. To a certain extent, it brings me peace to know she is safe and cared for but it is disheartening to see my parents have to give up so much of their own freedom. This is not how they had planned to spend their retirement years. Just as my grandmother is being robbed of her memories, potential memories of a care-free retirement are being taken from them. A time donated away they cannot retrieve, forever lost. But when I look past the obvious inconvenience, there is such beauty and meaning in seeing the role reversal of mother and daughter.
A full circle moment, an unspoken promise between mother and children of caring for one another. Afterall, there is no greater love between a mother and her child, rivalling the greatest love stories. If life decides to be cruel, I know without a doubt I would make the time to care for my own mother.
My grandmother is more than her disease. She has an entire lifetime to account for. Whilst she is unable to go back in time in her mind, she is still a product of her life experiences. She is often described as extraordinary and unshakably optimistic. These are qualities that dementia did not take from her. Small reminders of her personality, letting us know she is still here. Her good nature is deeply rooted, stemming out of a large loving family of nine children, which made it a happy childhood despite being faced by poverty.
My grandmother made her own path for herself. She created a life she could only dream of as a child. She was happily married and a mother of three. Her life was active with classes, sports, and activities. She regularly travelled all over the world. She lived well and she lived fully. This was due to her determination, resourcefulness, and her constant bright outlook on life. If life is a collection of your memories and hers are leaving her as rapidly as a blink of an eye, I wonder what it leaves her with?
There is darkness in the disease, but her light is stronger. Behind all the nonsense of her illness, her personality shines through. Always having been a proud person, she goes through great lengths to hide the disease and not ask for help. She is still so clever and witty. When she is tested, her instincts kick in. If I ask her where she is, she confidently replies “I am here”; or if I ask who she is, she will say “I am me”; and when I ask her who I am, “you are you”. Without having any knowledge, she is able to formulate answers which are to some extent correct. Of course, this only works until someone asks her to elaborate. However, she is quick on her feet and not easily intimidated. The same qualities that helped her survive poverty in her youth are serving her now, or at least what she thinks is helping her save face. Although unable to hold a comprehensible conversation, she never misses an opportunity to make others laugh, she is encouraging and will always offer kindness. Her innate need to serve others is taking over. Small parts of her the disease cannot access. Perhaps her guard is up, and she drew a line with the disease before it could take any more of her away.
It saddens me that she lived such a beautiful life and is unable to look back on it. A story left for her family to inherit with preferences for either stable or rocking chairs, and salty or sweet treats. My grandmother who was a master of her own destiny did not ask for this. She did not anticipate this unfortunate turn of events. Growing up, my grandmother often told me about her life. I loved hearing all the stories but particularly the ones about her siblings and their adventures around Quebec City, uniquely told through the eyes of an impoverished yet exciting childhood. I now obsessively go over them and wonder if my own memories have an expiry date. I am left further regretful that she is unable to form new memories. Every moment of the day is now lost to her. Unable to look backward and forward perhaps leaves her perfectly in the present, which many people ironically strive to do. A small victory in a difficult battle.
My grandmother used to always make things a little easier. A natural problem solver, her positivity was infectious, she had a way to make others feel comfortable. She was fantastic in her role as a grandmother and I am forever thankful to her. Now her presence makes things much more complicated. She spent her life helping and serving others. She gave more than she took. Unable to ask for help, I am grateful the natural order shifted by others caring for her, a small return on her lifetime of altruism. It is true that things are harder with her now. But my love for her is not any less for it. I enjoy being with her and I am grateful for whatever time she may have left with us. Before the disease took over her mind, she often expressed the wish to live to 100 and I think she will accomplish that goal with the help of her children. Of course, she will not be aware of this, but we will all be glad to celebrate and cherish it for her.
I still remember the last time I heard my grandmother say my name, or at least the last time she said it with recollection of me. There was a sense of finality to this. I am so thankful that I was able to take notice and store it in my own memory in a way she is now unable to. I revisit that moment time after time. I cherish all the memories of my grandmother and the ones she passed down to me. I do not know how many seasons she has left but watching her and my grandfather’s similar fate are stern reminders that we cannot take anything for granted.
You and I, dear reader, have the ability to go back in time and reminisce. We must do this often and with meaning. Your memories are your greatest treasure, pass them onto others. Live peacefully in the present with the knowledge that we are able to travel back in time to revisit those joyful moments. Our memories and days may be counted but we can make each moment count, live them fully and kindly. Take enjoyment in noticing the everyday moments. If you don’t do this for yourself, do it for my grand-maman Jeannine who is unable to do so for herself. On that note, I ask: Do you prefer sweet or salty treats, an armchair or a rocking chair? Whichever it is, go and enjoy them with the greatest pleasure.
Write something about yourself. No need to be fancy, just an overview.