During a recent conversation with my boss we discussed the importance of learning from people who have different ideas than you. Most of the time nothing particularly special or noteworthy happens when individuals with various expertise sit down and talk about difficult things. But sometimes people start changing the questions. They start framing problems in a new way. We were talking about research. I thought about how this might apply to my grampa.
He is a person who exists between decades. He no longer has any real concept of time, or day, or even year. On my last visit to Boston I surprised him at his home. My parents and I didn’t bother to ring the doorbell; we let ourselves in and found my grampa sitting in his arm-chair in the living room. It startled me.
The television was off. There was no book in his lap. It didn’t appear as though he had been napping. He was just sitting in the room with the lights off. Eventually, his face broke into a slow smile and he started giving me the business—his version of saying, hi, I missed you. But the situation bothered me. I got the sense that this was something of a routine.
For years I called him every Sunday afternoon. He expected it. If I phoned after four he would rib me for being late. Eventually he would pass the phone and my nana would talk about the damn dog she loved so much, and then ask about my love life. Looking back, I wish I had better stories to tell her. I remember describing the night a boy I liked lent me his jacket because I was cold at a campfire. When there wasn’t more to the story she was disappointed asking, that’s it? My grampa was easier. He always seemed happy just to hear my voice on the other end.
Now, I still call him on Sundays. But he doesn’t remember that I do. Our conversations used to take about eight minutes. I started noticing when they dropped to six. Lately it’s around four. I am beginning to think the Sunday calls are more for me now.
There will be occasions when grampa seems good, like we are having a real conversation. I ask a question, he answers, then he returns the serve. Often it pertains to the weather. The overall narrative is the same: I tell him I am working. He says he is glad to hear it. These moments usually fade and I wind up repeating the same question a few different ways. I know he has trouble hearing me, but I am never certain if that’s the problem, or if I am simply asking too much of him.
I find myself digging for proof of memory. My questions change in their meaning. When I ask what he had for lunch I am really asking if he remembers us. I want to understand where he goes when he is still in front of me. When I ask him to peel potatoes does that trigger anything in his mind? Does he connect that task with his job peeling potatoes at the clam shop where he first met my nana? Or is that another decade he has lost? Sometimes I wonder if I am interrupting his world when I call. He never can really say where he’s been.
My parents will show him photos of our family. Of his wife. His children. They say he has trouble identifying people in the images. That he often thinks they are people from his past. Sometimes he just outright asks if particular friends are still alive. Because he hasn’t seen them in a while …
What gives me hope is that he can remember my nephews. They are just seven and a half months old. Although he cannot remember their names, he knows them. And for me, this is something. It means he can make new connections in his brain. At the end of the month I am heading south to visit a man studying cognitive decline in elderly populations. I am doing it for work. And for me.
I would by lying if I said I wasn’t hoping he has some answers. I admit, I am hoping he will tell me we are doing it wrong. That not recognizing people in photographs doesn’t necessarily mean you don’t know who they were to you. I realize hope doesn’t have anything to do with science. And that perhaps we aren’t using the wrong vocabulary to communicate with grampa. Perhaps we aren’t just asking the wrong questions. Then again, perhaps.