I experienced an unexpected loss this New Year’s Day. And it’s taken me a month to sort through my emotions, about it and other stuff. I’m finding my voice this week, and I’m needing to process and share. I want to share too, because others in my family might need this chance to remember and grieve as well. It’s a strange loss, because it’s not complete, or finished. Not really. You see, my Grandma has fallen fast and deep into that nasty world of dementia. Eileen Brown Frie is still living, her body resides in San Diego in a lovely retirement center with her 2nd husband George. And yet, she’s not there anymore either. She’s polite and kind, worrying why the person next to her at the dinner table doesn’t have their salad yet, while she’s eating hers. She can laugh at funny pictures of children being silly and find hairstyles in the 70’s as ridiculous as they really were. But she has no clue that that person without a salad is her granddaughter. Or that those children being silly were her children, her grandchildren, her family. And that lady with the ridiculous hair-dos, that was her younger self.
I’ve dealt with dementia before, my Grandpa Paul Brown, this Grandma’s first husband, died from Alzheimer’s in 1999. But Grandpa’s battle then was long and slow, we all knew what was happening and were able to adjust as he moved farther back in time. Grandma was by his side for years of that horrible disease. We knew Grandma has begun to repeat stories, but at our last visit with her, two and a half years ago, she seemed her normal self. She did want me to write down our birthdays and anniversary in her new planner, as she said she was forgetting dates. My last phone conversation with her was last Christmas time, over a year ago – she repeated stories, but knew who I was and asked pertinent questions. So my next big clue was this spring and summer, when my Aunt Linda asked friends and family to send letters of special memories with Eileen, and a current picture that she was going to collect into a scrapbook for Grandma’s birthday in July, and she stressed that writing your names on the picture would help Eileen connect who was who, as her memory was lapsing. And then I was not able to get Grandma on the phone the rest of this year, but dealing with a 9 hour time difference can make calls hard to time, and I was leaving messages, though I did worry when my repeated calls made when I was back in the US this fall were not ever answered, still, they could be at lunch, the phone could be off the set, Grandma could be confused over which of my many phone numbers to use to call me back, etc… A few weeks before our planned New Year’s Day visit, we also got an email from my aunt letting us know that Grandma was having good and bad days, and on a bad day she may not know who we are, she said things had deteriorated very quickly this past year. We all prayed for a good day. But it just didn’t seem real.
I was so very blessed by a childhood nearby to both sets of my grandparents, for a bulk of it living in the same town as them both. I was also the only grandchild in the state for one side, and in the country for the other. I may have been a bit spoiled. My dad’s brother and his family lived in Utah, while my mom’s sister and her first husband and their kids were missionaries in England for most of my childhood. I was also blessed with two very different grandmothers – as I kid I said that I had an ‘indoor’ and an ‘outdoor’ Grandma. Grandma Willson had a swimming pool, and took me camping and to Disneyland and the beach. But Grandma Brown was the indoor Grandma, and while that might sound rather poor sport, it was anything but. God knew what he was doing giving Eileen a granddaughter, I’m sure she could have figured what to do with a little boy, but after two daughters, and due to her own decidedly calmer, ladylike interests, a granddaughter was perfect. My own mother knew many ‘ladylike’ talents, such a sewing and playing piano – but she was also a classic Hippie in the sense that she used those talents for practical things – like making and selling quilts, or useful household items like curtains and pillowshades. Grandma knew those practical things too, but with me, practical turned to fun. She made me doll clothes, some of the best doll clothes ever. And later both my Grandma’s made amazing Barbie clothes (after two sons Grandma Willson ended up with 7 granddaughters and only three grandsons, at the end, no less, so she got good at ‘girlie’ stuff too). But my favorite memories are of the crafts we did together, Grandma had this amazing pantry/laundry room off her kitchen, with shelves full of plastic shoes boxes, all full of amazing craft items. We made doll furniture out of tissue paper boxes and scraps of fabric, old thread spools for stools with felt ‘cushions’ on top. She helped me make gifts for family, I remember a lace-lined embroidery hoop filled with potpourri for my mom and decorated Easter Baskets made out of green plastic strawberry containers. And not everything actually happened ‘inside’, it was Grandma Brown who first took me to art museums and fantastic theater productions. I still have vivid memories of an event down by the ocean somewhere in an outdoor amphitheater of actors posing as living art, re-creating famous paintings. Maybe heavy stuff for an 11 year old, but I loved it.
My siblings arrived, but Zac was just a baby when we moved from California to New England, and both Noah and Sarah were born in Maine. For them, they only got to know Grandma on Christmas visits they made to us in the east, or on the couple visits over the summer my family made to California. I know for many, that’s how grandparents work. I know I was blessed with growing up near my grandparents. As an adult we got to live in California for a few years when my own kids were tiny, and I loved getting to see my kids be blessed with a bit of that growing up close time. It was short, but I’m thankful for it. My cousin Chris, Aunt Linda’s oldest, has gotten to live nearby to Grandma for the past several years, and his children have gotten to know her a bit better – I’m so very thankful for them, for that time of togetherness.
It hit me pretty hard, despite Aunt Linda’s warnings. Hearing about something, no matter how much detail is given, is just not the same as a firsthand experience. And I think we were all comparing what this might be like to how it had been for Grandpa Paul in the early days. My mom sent us old photos to show Grandma, as those memories might be stronger we thought, to help her connect the past us to us today. This time, this dementia seems especially mean, taking long and short term memories indiscriminately. Besides not having an awareness of who anyone was around her, even her daughter (she seemed comfortable with Linda, but also unaware of their connection), she also had much confusion in the short term realm. I made a photo book for both my Grandmas for Christmas this year, of our family’s past year, plus brought an Hungarian Christmas ornament. So we looked through the book together, Grandma polite and personable if a bit distant. She hands the book to George and we look at some other photo albums, the ones my mom had sent. George hands her back the book after he looked through it, maybe ten minutes later, and she has no idea what he’s handing her. She didn’t know that they lived there, said something about ‘spending the night’. Noah, Sarah, Norbert and I walked her and George up to their apartment after the family lunch party. It was a special, though hard time for me. The whole place is built into a hillside, so their apartment is along an outside courtyard, and I told Grandma how wonderful it is that she gets to see clouds, how she loves puffy clouds in a bright blue sky. And then I heard birds, and mentioned how much she loves birds, and I’m so glad she can hear and see them each day. She turned to me and commented that I must know her pretty well, and that, yes, she thinks she really likes those things. I gave her a half hug and again, told her she did really like birds and clouds, and that I loved her. I kept hoping for that moment in The Notebook, where the old Ally suddenly knows who Noah is. I hope Grandma still has some of those moments, I don’t know. I hope she has a moment or two with George, he’s her rock right now, her constant. Even with his hearing aids in, he can’t hear much (another clue on the un-answered phones), but he could see that spark of recognition and love in her eyes.
When we were first in Hungary, it was the early days of email and companies used faxes still, so old fashioned snail mail still happened much more often than it does today. And Grandma was my most faithful letter-sender. She didn’t always write long letters, but she always sent us a short note, and in each envelope she’d include Bible verses on pretty notecards, clipping of family-related comics, magazine clippings of things she thought I might find interesting, like recipes or child-rearing ideas, sometimes she’d include a picture if there had been a family gathering. I got a letter from Grandma just about every week. I know I thanked her, but I’m not sure I ever really expressed how very much that meant, that connection with ‘home’ and family. And just last month, at the end of January, an event happened that Grandma was always the best at remembering. I forgot myself, on the day, but thought of it yesterday. I had my 38th Birthday in Jesus. Grandma has only forgotten to send a card in the last couple years, so she has sent me probably 36 ‘Birthday’ cards in January, plus a couple more than that in September. For all of us, Grandma made a pretty big deal of our re-birth as Christians, and rightly so. But for us, for Grandma and me, mine has always been special in relation to each other. I was three years old when I asked Jesus into my heart, in Grandma’s living room where my mom and I were sleeping on a visit. My memory of that time with my mom doesn’t really exist, but the memory of running down their hallway and knocking on Grandma’s bedroom door to tell her may be my oldest memory. Grandma lovingly talked of it often, but from her perspective, my memory is of the hallway, at my level, and her door opening, and I was excited. Grandma may not remember right now who she is, or even who Jesus is. But He knows her. And I have no doubt at that door opening, and the excitement that will come, when Eileen’s body rejoins her mind.
I love you Grandma.