Today I went to see my grandma in the memory care facility she now calls home. Visits now are nothing like they used to be at her house. There is no kitchen stocked with my favorite snacks or comfortable room of my own with a fold-out bed stacked with hand-sewn quilts. It’s just her, an armchair, and a twin-sized bed that creaks up and down with a remote control so she can be bathed and dressed in the optimal position.
But her face lights up when she sees me and her small body relaxes into me when I hug her.
“My sister,” she describes me with a grin. “Where is your husband? Did you bring the little boy today?”
Obviously, I am not her sister, and while I do indeed have a husband, my child is a girl.
Does that mean she doesn’t remember me?
Not at all. She knows I come to see her and talk to her and hug and kiss her. She knows I’m family and someone who loves her.
Every time I visit, we look through old photographs. Today she wants to be reminded of everyone’s name and she asks me if any of them are “Elisa.”
I tell her which ones are Elisa, and then I point to myself and explain loudly (because her hearing is not good) that I am Elisa. That confuses her a little, and we move on to talk about her new duvet and whether we like cooking.
As I smile to myself at how happy I am to see her, I remember those in my family who do not visit her. Who have chosen to continue on with their lives while this beautiful matriarch continues on and learns to navigate her new life at the facility.
I remember their words.
“She doesn’t remember me anyway.”
“Whenever I call she just gets confused and thinks I’m you.”
“What’s the point of visiting? She doesn’t know who I am.”
And you know what?
She doesn’t know who I am either.
She doesn’t remember the day I was born or changing my diapers.
She can’t recall all the times we played Yahtzee in the dining room, made BLTs in the kitchen, or drove around the neighborhood to see all the Christmas lights.
I have lost the one person I could call at any time for any reason.
I have lost the one person who made me feel loved and whole.
I can’t get any of that back by visiting her.
When she sees me she doesn’t connect the image before her with 30 years of watching me grow and seeing me make something of myself.
But you know what she does see?
That girl who came by last week and sat with her.
Who kissed her cheek and dusted crumbs off the front of her shirt.
Who climbed onto the arm of her chair to get a little closer.
Whose child drew a picture with crayons and showed off what she’d been learning in gymnastics class.
Pieces of me live in her short-term memory.
I am somebody to her because I choose to keep coming.
In some ways, I’m getting nothing out of it.
Of course, it’s fulfilling to see her eyes smile and to be able to comfort her in painful moments.
But the words of encouragement she used to grace me with won’t come back.
She can’t listen to me, advise me, or feel proud of me for anything. Her mind can’t do any of that.
But here I am, in her short-term memory.
Letting go of the relationship I cherish and that I have always leaned on.
Letting go of it so that I can create a brand new relationship.
One that she needs right now.
And this right here is what giving back feels like.