Visiting Family and Working Through Alzheimer’s

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It had been years since I’d seen them last, and even that was just for a brief visit. I was nervous to go then, and wondered what this family of mine would think. Would I look too old or too round? Would I be too quiet and withdrawn? Would I bring too much me? Would I bear Him at all?

Then the opportunity came again, three years later, and this time I was ready- driven. My grandma was forgetting things more and more, and my aunt was tired of the battle. Lonely. Misunderstood. Mad.

Climbing the stairs to the second story apartment, I quietly wondered, “how difficult is it for them to leave the house?” We found the door, and hesitantly knocked. “What would they say? Would my aunt be upset? Would my grandma remember me at all?”

She threw open the white etched door, and greeted me with a smile and a hug.

It was an exhausted smile, but a smile no less. We were welcomed warmly and the weight began to lift. I could breathe, and yes, I would treasure this moment. I would cherish my family.

“Mom, do you know who this is?” My aunt began.

The blank stare gave away her confusion.

“This is Marlin’s daughter, Stephanie, your granddaughter. And this is Korrie, your great-granddaughter.”

And that’s when the world stopped spinning. For a fleeting moment the confusion seemed to fade and recognition set in. She gasped and she sobbed and I thought my heart would burst. Instead I hugged her and cried, and then I had to step away. I didn’t know what to say or do, or how I should feel.

“I’m sorry it’s been so long.”  “I wish I could rewind time.” “I’m sorry you have this disease and you can’t remember, but I’m so thankful you remember right now, even for just a moment.”

Maybe any of those statements would have been the right statement, but I said none of them. I brushed away the tears and pushed aside the what-ifs and how-comes. Perhaps it’s easier for her this way-  pushing it away and forgetting what is hard is easier than remembering and living it over and over day in and day out. Because that’s what moms do. They dwell on it, and fix it in their minds, but real life says you can’t fix those who are already broken. So she just forgets.

Some people might think it’s cruel. Some may say that only a ruthless God would leave a woman so confused and all mixed-up. But I have a different opinion on that. I wonder if it’s just the opposite. I wonder if this is God’s mercy- His way of rescuing her from her own nightmares and guilt. His way of liberating her from the ache no woman can carry. His way of protecting the tenderest of daughters in their most bruised spaces.

I think I saw God there, and it wasn’t in radiant glory, or abundant joy. At least not the kind you’d expect. I think I saw Him in those bewildered eyes and hesitant questions.

We curled up on sofas and chairs and began casual conversations. I learned about my cousins and about their struggles and was reminded of life.

Life– there’s so much in that one small syllable. Life speaks of radiance and joy and newness. Like watching a baby come into the world and life miraculously is. No one can explain it. It just happens. Or when winter melts to spring and boldly reminds us that things once dead give to new life- full of luscious beauty and vibrant color. But then there’s Life– the kind that is the mundane and the day by day dreariness. Like when you wander in the wilderness and struggle through difficulty and pass it off as life.

I heard the smallest parts of their stories and I hurt for every one of them.

And I hurt for myself.

I know circumstances wouldn’t have ended any different had I been there. But I would have turned out different, better, with them in my life, and maybe they would have come out a little different if I had been in theirs?

So we shared our stories and tried to wrap years into an hour and a half. We knew we couldn’t package it all up nicely and pass it on to one another, and we didn’t try. This package had no shiny bow. There was no pretending, no hateful words, no should haves or would haves. Just life. Acceptance.

And after so many minutes, my grandma would start questioning-

“Who are these people?”

she’d ask all confused and curious.

“I’m Marlin’s daughter, Stephanie, and this is my daughter Korrie”

I’d remind her. Over and over again. And I didn’t mind at all. It was like reliving that moment again and again. I was reminded of the guilt, but each time it got a little easier.

And every time she’d respond with such emotion and surprise- “Marlin?!” she’d gasp. And I could hear the ache for her son. But she got a little less upset and maybe a little more familiar with the strangers in her living-room. Just maybe. She didn’t cry again, and I began to hope that we’d leave some sort of a whisper in her life. A mark of some sort that we’d been there and she’d remember, somewhere deep and hidden, somewhere safe and secure, that we were her family.

My daughter learned some things that day- family is precious, it’s never too late to connect, and “people struggling with that disease aren’t stupid, they just forget.”

There’s one thing my grandma didn’t forget though, and that’s the power of prayer. Because as we shared hard-to-speak-of-secrets and spoke of Jesus and prayer, she sat up straight and asked right out,

“What do you need prayer for? How can I pray?”

Just pray for life, Grandma, and we’ll praise God for yours.

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