I met up with a former colleague this morning for coffee. She was in town because her mother got sick a few weeks ago and in all likelihood will never get better. My friend has spent the week shuttling her aging parents to various doctor appointments and meetings with their lawyer. They are starting to plan for the day when they can no longer live alone and have to put their life into boxes, sell off the rest, and move into a space where they can be forever chaperoned. It seems to be coming soon.
A doctor caring for my friend’s mother said that what happens as we age is we compensate for what we lose. We stabilize at lower levels of functioning until we slide and adapt at lower and lower levels until finally we fall off a cliff. Although it probably feels more like we are pushed off one. If we are fortunate, we have loved ones in proximity with the time, finances and health to prop us back up. My friend lives out of state and her job and house are not portable. She and her sister are cobbling together a patchwork care system to get through the holidays. And then they will see.
I know this system.
For the last four years I’ve watched from the periphery as my parents and aunt traded weeks caring for my grandfather after my nana died. Her death either pushed him off the ledge or revealed how much they compensated for the other’s deficiencies. She lost her lungs. He lost his mind.
I last saw my grampa in September. We sat outside on my parents’ back porch and I recorded our conversation because I am collecting the stories he hasn’t lost to dementia yet. He told me about World War II and the damn foxhole he dug every night because that’s what you did so you didn’t die. He said he was lucky he never got hurt. I have heard this all before, dozens of times now, but I nodded like it was the first. He never mentions his friends in the service. He ignores those prompts for information. Maybe he has forgotten them. Or perhaps there are just some things you do not speak of.
The human brain is clever. When my dad shaves my grandfather he knows to poke his tongue against his lower lip to push the skin out for the blade. But show him a picture of his wife of 60 years and he cannot make the connection. Sometimes he just needs context for who you are. A starting point to trace your relationship to him that always begins with my parents. I guess it’s like hearing your favorite song on the radio. You know you know the words but you can’t sing them unless you start from the beginning. Then it feels like the words never left you. Like they never could.
My parents, sister and I went to clean grampa’s house before he moved into a nursing facility. We opened dusty drawers and collected glassware from the cabinets. We put silverware and books in boxes. I found tablecloths my nana embroidered and a bag of old triptiks from AAA with maps that highlighted their routes. I unfolded one and saw advisories about speed traps scrawled in pencil along a Florida highway. The maps are adventures my grandparents took together. I didn’t want to throw them away, but none of us needs a roadmap to Florida these days, and grampa doesn’t own a car anymore. He can’t even drive to the end of the street.
My grandparents saved everything but somehow I feel I don’t have any record of their life. The basement is a repository of old tools and linens. My nana stashed birthday cards and pictures and bank statements in unmarked files and plastic bags in their dining room and closets. I sorted the piles of paperwork hoping to find something in her handwriting, some notation that could provide a glimpse into her mind and how she felt about anything. I just wanted a sentence. But I never found one. I think I have to start looking for their stories in the things they salvaged rather than the words they didn’t.
After hugging my friend goodbye this morning she said this: All we can do is leave something meaningful behind. I agree. And yet I am still trying to figure out exactly what that means.