You have made me a much better person lately but not in the usual ways. It was your dementia that really did the trick. Not that I wasn’t a good person already, but learning how to navigate the scary and unnerving path of your ongoing dementia has taught me so many things.
I cherish what I have in the here and now. I have learned to be so much more present and meet you where you are, and in turn, others as well. We often talk about your parents, my grandparents. You tell me they surprised you with a visit. I chuckle and say, “A visit from them would have surprised me as well,” knowing full well they both died in the late ’70s. It brings you comfort to talk of them and think of them as still alive. I cannot deny you that comfort so we chat as if they are only a phone call away. I will remember this when speaking with someone who is sharing an important piece of their life—whether they be 2 or 92—I will listen with my whole being because it is a gift to do that for anyone. In turn, I hope I find the people that will do that for me.
I thank you for saving so many things.
Things that most people would throw away in this age of minimalism. I have over 200 letters that you and Dad sent to each other while he was in the Navy. You would probably cringe that I am reading them, but they tell such a beautiful love story, and I have learned so much about your young lives. You and Dad would often write two times a day and who knew the post office delivered twice a day? Phone calls were a treat.
Your budding courtship and your early days as a nurse all play out in those letters. At one point (although this letter was not saved) you two broke up. You initiated it, and Dad being so far away acknowledged that you were a “catch” and was surprised you had not done so sooner. The thing is you two never stopped writing, and pretty soon you were together again. Phew, for a minute there, I thought the love story would end (OK I knew the ending but still).
These letters are your living history, and I will save them and translate them for the grandkids and great-grandkids. I say translate because while your beautiful script is quite readable, Dad’s is not. While I will not save hundreds of margarine containers like you did, I will make sure our family history is saved. I have so many questions you cannot answer and from that, I have learned to write my story so my children and grandchildren will know what I was like before I became a mom and grandma.
I have learned immense patience.
OK, this is a lesson I have to learn again and again as most people do. Instead of being in a hurry, I walk at your pace, and now I sit by your bed. I hold your hand. You are often asleep and maybe don’t even remember I am there, but I believe the warmth of my hand in yours is a comfort. Sometimes you wake up and act surprised I am there and smile. You pat my hand and go back to sleep. No matter what, I always say goodbye even if it wakes you, and I always, always say I love you. You know I love you, but lately, I never know if it will be the last time I hear you say it back.
I bring you soft new sweaters in your favorite colors. Someone once said I should just get you jogging suits. I get it, more practical but you never wore one in your life, so I try to find you the most comfortable clothes in the styles you like. I know it does your spirit good to be as dressed up as you can be. You taught me you can have style at any age.
Your stature, or lack of it, at five feet does bring some challenges in the clothes department. I once spent a whole day in July online before I found two flannel nightgowns that would not swamp you in length. A very kind woman on the phone stayed with me as we paged through the company’s website looking for just the right ones, and we found them. They are your favorites. This woman restored my faith in the kindness of strangers. She was not going to quit until we found the perfect nightgown.
Helping you has helped me find kindness in unexpected places.
There were things you never talked about and I wish you had, but perhaps it was too painful. You lost a baby at 20-weeks gestation and spoke only briefly of that experience even though it must have been traumatic. You were the kindest soul to a young 13-year-old boy who died of heart failure in your last year of nursing school. I know this because I have the letter his father wrote and thanked you for being there for his son who “had love and confidence in you in his last moments.” You wrote in your letters to Dad about how hard it was to see the sick babies in the nursery waiting for the angels and of the 3-year-old boy recovering from polio who followed you everywhere on his crutches, and then suddenly died.
I remember thinking you had only worked actively as a nurse for five or six years. Little did I know the impact you made on so many lives. You taught me to leave out the word “only.” There is rarely a time when it fits.
I have learned to let go of the unimportant stuff and honestly, most of the stuff is unimportant.
It is people who matter most.
I know that. I think we all know that, and yet, we always forget.
The silver lining of your dementia is the lessons you continue to teach me. I am grateful for that and for you. I know, like the babies, you are waiting for the angels. You are ready to be with Dad again. In some respects it is time, but for me and my heart, it will always be too soon.