My Nana started to get sick on Christmas Day. I was two weeks shy of 15, and I wasn’t overly empathetic towards her when she didn’t come over with Papa for Christmas dinner. I just shook my head. I thought it was just like all the other times. A dance recital here, a birthday dinner there. I knew she had honest intentions, but I was used to hearing stories from my Nana on why she couldn’t make it. I thought Christmas Day was just like all the other times.
Christmas 2007 was the beginning of a long, confusing, journey for my Papa as my family tried to make sense of my Nana’s odd behaviour, what they meant, and what life now meant for her.
First, she forgot where she was even though we were sitting in the same living room she had sat in for 45 years. Then she couldn’t tell my brother apart from my uncle.
It took about six months of her moving out from the house her and my Papa built in 1963 to a couple of different assisted living centres until she finally settled at Deer Lodge Centre where there were people who could provide the care she needed. It’s where she stayed for five years.
My Papa visited her every single day.
Deer Lodge Centre is sort of depressing. People are there because they have to be because they can’t take care of themselves. You wouldn’t hope for anyone to have to spend the last part of their life there. My Nana’s room was the prettiest, the most like a home. Not because her room was any different from the rest of the patients on her floor, but because my grandpa decorated it with a timeline of photo collages from their wedding day in 1958 and the life they built together, three kids and five grandchildren later. He brought in furniture from home and a retro-styled radio that played ’50s music. My Nana was the luckiest lady there to have her husband who still tended to her relentlessly, even though she couldn’t tend back.
I’ve wondered, how heartbreaking it must be to spend your entire with someone — to begin each sunrise and end each sunset with — and then be forced to watch the demons of mental of illness turn your person into a stranger. The whole point of growing old with another person is to share life and then its memories together. How painful it must be for it to feel like the person you endured the highs and lows with you has forgotten them.
My Papa has always been the most selfless person I’ve known. He’s always been like my third parent, more than a grandparent you only see at birthday dinners and Christmas. He was always at every dance performance, soccer game, school event, and waiting in the driveway at 6 a.m. to drive to the airport when I booked a last-minute trip to California. How many girls can say their grandpa is better at texting than they are? Well, mine is.
I watched the prim-and-proper woman I once knew my Nana to be — who smelled like sweet pea and packed three pairs of shoes when she left the house (just in case) — dwindle into a stranger who hadn’t a clue who I was. I knew her my entire life, but that was still only 20 years. My Papa had seen the past 55 years of his life with her and was forced to watch her slip away.
The average lifespan of a person diagnosed with dementia is 5-10 years. My Nana lasted 6. For six years I never saw my grandpa let the weight of my Nana’s illness break him. He has always been a man who stays busy — delivering Meals-On-Wheels, attending University art classes — things like that. And he didn’t stop doing those things.
Actually, my grandpa started going to the Reh-Fit Centre where he now works out every day. His Christmas gift this year was Addidas workout gear. He was pretty ecstatic he didn’t have to wear his flannel shorts to the gym anymore. He even did a little dance.
I’ve always admired the choice he makes each day. Especially during those 6 years.
The choice to be positive.
Being positive is not necessarily smiling when it’s easy.
Being positive is choosing to smile and have hope when you have reasons not to.
Often, you can’t control your circumstances. But, you do have control over how you choose to approach them.
I say choose to be positive.