When I was about 12 or 13, I was visiting my paternal grandfather in Michigan as I did every year. We went to visit his mother, who was pretty far down the descent of dementia.
Unsurprisingly, she referred to me as my uncle Paul (who coincidentally I’m named after) and discussed the rats that were coming through a hole in the wall that she pointed to (there was no hole there). My grandfather hadn’t taken me to see his mother in a couple years, so I wondered why we took time out of this trip to do it. It became clear as we left. We walked out on a bridge, and quietly watched the murky water run under the bridge for a minute or two. And then he told me something I’ll never forget.
“If I ever get like that, I want you to take me to Lake Michigan and tell me it’s time to swim across.”
I don’t know why he told me this. Maybe he thought I’d be the one who might actually do it. Maybe he was just expressing his frustration. And maybe he didn’t know what to do about his mother.
I never brought this conversation up with him again. He died of cancer in my freshman year of college, long before there was a chance for dementia to dull his wit. Of course, I wish I’d been able to see him once more before he died, but my own father refused to take me: “He wouldn’t want you to see him that way.”
On this National Healthcare Decisions Day (April 16), the questions of memory weigh heavily on my mind. Of course, you should do advance care planning. Of course, you should appoint a health care representative. And of course, you should think about the things in your life that give it meaning. But for some reason this year, I’m more worried about what it means to lose my memory and if the end of my life will change how others remember me.
Just a few years ago, I drove my grandmother in-law up to southern Michigan, to the lake she lived on for many years. Her memory and health were beginning to decline and I wanted to take her there one time with my son. We brought a chair so she could sit on the dock as my son played in the lake. I don’t know if she remembers the day, but I do. My son thoroughly enjoyed himself and my grandmother-in-law seemed to. And I also learned a valuable lesson about conversations with individuals in the early stages of dementia. If you don’t handle a conversation well, don’t worry, it’ll come around again very soon.
I remember my own grandfather and his fierce desire to avoid the loss of his cognitive awareness. I will remember my grandmother-in-law as a woman with class and social grace. My grandfather just suddenly disappeared and my grandmother-in-law continues to slowly fade away. I don’t know which is better or worse, but I wish I still had them both as they were.