I'm in a traffic jam on Main Street in downtown Walnut Creek. All of a sudden it occurs to me that I'm creeping along as slowly as we used to do on a weekend night when we could get April Kenny's older brother to take us along when he "cruised the Main." Yes, I went to high school in a town where a certain street was the place for weekend car cruising, that is, driving about five miles per hour up and down and down and up the same street over and over again. And yes, it was even called Main Street.
Why do kids "cruise the Main"? Just to be with people. This is not what is happening in this traffic jam.
But today is Tuesday, not Saturday, and it's 5:30 pm, not even dark out, October 2001, and I'm 17 years out of high school. I'm just looking for something to eat between my afternoon with my grandmother (who has Alzheimer's disease, and whom I see most Tuesday afternoons) and my evening with my Heidegger reading group.
Such is my Tuesday, every Tuesday. I teach a freshman composition class at UC Berkeley, rush off to check in with my other on-campus job (desktop publishing of a scholarly papers series), grab a bag lunch, and head back to my "office" for two hours of office hours for students (during which, lately, I usually read Heidegger's Being and Time because students don't really make use of office hours). Then it's off to Walnut Creek, where my grandma, Marietta, lives in an "assisted living facility."
In other words, my day begins with college freshmen who need to be taught that they are supposed to have their own ideas about texts, crests with grandma at the edge of thought's oblivion, and subsides with reminders of being-in-the-world alongside wine, cheese, and the type of people who attend things called "Heidegger reading group."
Today is a bit out of the ordinary, because instead of going to TargetTM to look around aimlessly at merchandise (it really does clear the head after the afternoon's fog of Alzheimer's) and grabbing a regrettable Jamba JuiceTM before jumping in the car for the drive to Oakland and Heidegger, I decide to see whether I can find somewhere to eat in downtown Walnut Creek.
For many reasons, the two most important ones being: the distance from San Francisco (where I now live) to Walnut Creek, and my intense nausea at the topic of things related to high school (even now!), you could count on your fingers the number of times I've been in downtown Walnut Creek since my high school days.
However, when I was in high school, downtown Walnut Creek was the place to be. First for cruisingif you could find someone with a driver's license and car who would consent to have a couple of geeky girls in the back seat, and believe me, there were nights when Jerry Kenny made us sit on the floor of the backseat so we wouldn't be seenand then, when I had reached the stage of my own rebellion rather than that of desperately clinging to any possibility of belongingness to a crowd, downtown Walnut Creek became the place for "hanging out" at the gelato/espresso café where the punk-rock types (the kind the suburbs create) hung out. This was, of course, simply yet another kind of crowdtry telling that to the 16-year-old mebut at least in this crowd I was fairly welcome. Plus, my friend, Marilyn worked at the espresso place. How cool is that?
At that point in timelet's call it the early 80'sskateboarding was extremely transgressive and anarchistic. Of course I am cringing as I write/think that. But that was how it was viewed from within the culture, as opposed to from without. Any set of judgments changes when the viewpoint shifts from inside to outside, and both points of view have their virtues and their weaknesses. So, with their outside view, Walnut Creek police made it their job to make sure skateboarding did not happen, and that loitering (i.e., sitting on a public bench for more than 10 minutes) did not happen, etc. Because skateboarding and loitering were transgressive and anarchistic.
Of course, we were in Walnut Creek. What else was there to do? If we weren't allowed to skateboard or sit on public benches, you better believe we'd be doing other things that the police should have been concentrating on instead. That argument, and all my arguments, were as lost on the public officers then as I am guessing they would be now. Except now I'm not so sure there are any teenagers or unclean elements in Walnut Creek….
Because, as I am thinking about the irony and the silliness of police action against kids drinking espressokids who, when they are forced to stop drinking espresso, go find drugsI begin to notice more and more how this is not my Main Street. My Main Street only had a few restaurants, and still looked like something built in the 1960's with an aging Disneyland as its model. This new Main Street is all restaurants and, though some of the familiar buildings are still thereredwood, concrete slab, ye olde tyme-y stonefacethe street in general more than looks like a yuppie paradise, lo! I declare there is more than an appearance, more like an intense auraI'll bet the target market would pick the word "ambience"of gentrification (that is, purification) about it all. It seems very clear to me that police might not even be needed in such a theme park. No one would cruise this thing and call it "The Main," or jump its curbs with skateboards, or sit on its benches, unless they were "extras" paid to do so.
Right then I see a sign for a Mel's Diner, and at the same time a song I would have heard in April Kenny's brother's car comes on the radio: Ozzy Osbourne's "Crazy Train." This sends my experience of the "nouveau cruise" of Main Street into overdrive. I decide that this is no day to try anything new, so I head for Mel's Diner. Because, though Mel's is new to Walnut Creek, its diner chain is not new to me, and I know exactly what its Grilled Cheese will deliver.
I pull up and park in front of the Wells Fargo Bank where many a confrontation over bench-sitting occurred back when. I'd be sitting there with Tony Brinton, scheming something more interesting to do than sitting there, when an officer of the peace would walk up and ask us to move on. (Teenage me to cop: "So why are there benches here if it is against the law to sit on them?" Ah, youth.) Today I see a young couple on the benches, such a couple as no one would ever ask to move ona fresh-faced mixed-race couple looking like something straight out of an (older) Benetton ad, kissing on the benches of illegality (a chaste kiss, no tongue). No young smartasses asking why skateboarding is a crime. Indeed, as I look around, I note that the demographic seems to have shifted to include mostly 20-something and 30-whatever types who look like they have good jobs at which they often work late, and then on the weekends enjoy sea kayaking or some other pastime I can only dimly imagine. No one seems older or younger than that. (The teens in evidence all seem to wait tables at the restaurants that seem to be what Main Street is all about now. My waitress at Mel's, "Serena," works at Mel's and at a hair salon.)
It was on this street that I often encountered Keith Petersen, teen boyfriend of mine, who was oft caught breaking the anti-skateboarding law (and whose recent photographic work graces this issue of h2so4). He was impressed by my teen questioning of authority, as teen boys are apt to be. The first time we met, I was hanging out at a party in a zone of burnt down houses. The boys liked to skateboard in the empty pools. He headbutted me in the stomach and then said he was really wasted. I said, probably with some form of teenage valley-girl type of lilt of voice, "You can tell." He replied, "You can tell by the way I use my walk I'm a woman's man, no time to talk," and moonwalked away. After that we spent many years trying to decide whether we loved or loathed each other, and finally, mutually (thankfully), settled on being friends who like each other but who don't have each other on speed dial.
I haven't had any of these thoughts for a long time. I see Keith a few times a year even though he lives three blocks away from me in San Francisco. And when I do see him I never think about the fact that we once datedit's that long agoI just appreciate his singular sense of humor and his awesome fiancée. In general I don't spend too much time on nostalgia. The three names I'll mention in this articleMarilyn, Tony, Keithare the only people from my high school years I still talk to. It is as if the experience of my grandmother's Alzheimer's underscores for my unconscious how very much of human life hinges on memory.
All of a sudden, sitting at Mel's, I begin to laugh, because Mel's is the diner shown in American Graffiti, that most nostalgic of American films, and, what's more, American Graffiti is all about cruising the freaking Main (though of some other California town). If I had forgotten that plot detail, any of a host of film stills emblazoning Mel's walls could have reminded me. My Grilled Cheese, I believe, is laughing at me.
That's one thing my grandma with Alzheimer's has not lost. She can't remember where she is, how long she has been there, how she got there, often she can't tell whether its 5pm or 5ameven if she looks outside at the daylightbut she knows a good joke when she hears it. I'll have to tell her this one.
For some reason, spending time with my grandma's loss of memory packs my thoughts with memories I haven't accessed for a long time. And time is a strange factor.
For my grandma, the loss of short term memory is accompanied by a loss of a sense of time. It's interesting, if you can remove yourself from it emotionallysomething my mother is unable to do, not to say that I blame herto consider what this means. When I see my grandmother next Tuesday, she won't know how long it has been since I last saw her. She might think I live far away and have traveled all this time just to see her. She might remember that I live in San Francisco but think that she is in Florida, which means I have, again, traveled all this way. She still always knows who I am, her granddaughter, for which I am thankful and which I will treasure for as long as she remembers this, but that won't stop her from asking me, all of a sudden, "Did you see him walking near the bank today?" Me: "Who?" Her: "My father, grandpa?" Of course, her father died before I was born, and wouldn't be my grandpa. I don't think she actually thinks I'm her daughter, but time, as I said, is utterly lost to her.
She even wakes up at night, calling out in Finnish, a language she hasn't spoken since she was five or six, and which she doesn't claim an ability to speak during the day.
I answer: "No, I didn't see him. We don't live near each other."
That is of course more true than I can say, if we think temporally and spatially. And that's another tricky thing. What happens to conceptions of space when you lose track of time? Space occurs as something that happens in time. Distance takes time to traverse, or it isn't distance, etc.
This is the toughest question, and the one I'm most immediately faced with on Tuesday afternoons: What do you talk about with someone who has no sense of time? I can't ask her what she has been doing lately, or what she had for lunch, or whether she's seen my mom, or heard from any other grandkids. I can't ask her if she's read anything interesting lately, or seen anything on TV, or had fun with any of her new friends, or gone on any organized outings. All of these require that she have a short term memory and some conception of the passing of time.
So I say: "Aren't cats cute? My cat, The Rhombus, does this weird thing where he lays on his backlike a dog! (she loves that part)with his paws pointing upward but curled over at the top, like a limpwrist. And if you call his name, he'll turn his head toward you so half of his body is on its side and the other half is still facing upwards. He looks like a toy put together incorrectly!" So we talk about cats and their crazy antics for awhile. Then she'll say something like:
"When am I going home?"
Normally, I play along, as in when I tell her that I haven't seen her father in town that day. That might seem cruel if you don't understand the facts of Alzheimer's as a disease. Believe me, it is far more cruel to try to force her to see the truth, whatever that is.
But with this particular question (and all of these questions are by now paradigms, or "scenarios," things that reoccur every time I see her whether in the same manner and order or slightly differently) I explain that she is home now, that she has moved from Florida because we (me, my mom, my sister) wanted her to live close to us in California.
Then, one of two things happens. (Both will happen eventually, but their order is at all times uncertain.)
Scenario one: Grandma says: "Oh. That's right." Pause. "Isn't it wonderful that Daddy thought ahead to buy me this furniture?" ("Daddy" means my grandfather, her first husband, who died when I was fourteen.) Looking around the room, I say, "Yes, Walter was a wonderful man," though, of course, it was either me, or my mom and I together, who bought most of this furniture. None of it is older than a year or so. My grandma even watched me move it in and assemble it, then helped me choose the spots on the walls where the paintings would go, etc. When someone you love has Alzheimer's disease, you have to give up desiring or expecting to get credit for anything but loving them.
Scenario two: Grandma says: "Bob passed away. He was a good man. And Daddy passed away, too. How have I managed to lose two husbands?" I say, "Yes, that's sad, and I miss them both, too. You've been a lucky woman. You've had two great husbands in your life when many women don't even find one." I say this with a humorous tone, which I know she'll appreciate. She says, "Yes, you're right. They were both wonderful men. Very different. Your grandfather was a sharp dresser and loved to dance. Bob didn't like clothes, but never stopped making me laugh. He made everybody happy."
You can see how either of these Scenarios can lead to the other. There are a few variations, but the themes remain the same. Here's one I'm thankful occurs less often. She says:
"Bob passed away." I say, "Yes, it was a terrible loss." Pause. She says: "You were there."
What this means is that she remembers how he died, which, thankfully, is usually not the case, her memory loss usually veering towards self-kindness, forgetting the more painful moments.
The truth is, Bob died while he and I were swimming in the Gulf of Mexico. In May 2000 I was visiting them in St. Petersburg, Florida, where they lived in a retirement community and had a close circle of friends and an active social life. Bob loved swimming, especially in the Gulf of Mexico. He actually said to me on that day: "There is no feeling in the world better than this!"
We swam for awhile, but I find the Gulf of Mexico kind of creepy, because it is bathwater-warm and the water is dark and, well, I don't want any fish touching me! So I yelled to Bob that I was getting out of the water but would be up on one of the chaise lounges if he needed help getting out. (He was a strong swimmer, but his knees were bad and he sometimes had a hard time getting out of the water against the considerable undertow.)
He said, "OK, your loss. Are you afraid of getting your hair wet?" or something like that. (That's funny because my hair is about 1-inch long.) My grandma is right. He had quite a devilish sense of humor, and though he had a very strong personality, even those he initially put on guard (myself included, in the early years of the 17 years he spent with my grandma), ended up liking him quite a bit (myself included). And he certainly loved my grandma, and would have done anything for her.
I was on the chaise lounge, my grandma was up on the shaded deck, and Bob was in the water. I was beginning to get bored and tired of the sun, and was hoping Bob would want to get out of the water soon. A few moments, or minutes, or, I'm not suregrief, shock and emergency also rearrange a sense of timelater, I saw him struggle a bit, like something had pulled him from beneath. I ran into the waterreally, right thenand was near him in, who knows, certainly less than a minute, probably only half a minute, and he was already dead.
This is a big man we're talking about. I was now faced with getting his dead body out of the Gulf of Mexico, undertow and all. At that point (what do I know?) it seemed possible that CPR would revive him.
I started screaming for help and pulling his head out of the water and yelling his name and drawing him toward the shore. Three people immediately came to help me. As luck would have it, one of them was a vacationing EMT (Emergency Medical Technician) and another was a nurse. It was as if I were in an episode of Touched by an Angel (which my mother loves to watch but which I call, when I happen to have to watch it because I am at my mother's house, Douched by an Angel). If Bob had any chance of surviving, he would have. He didn't.
In the meantime, while they're working on him, I have no choice but to go get my grandma, who then has to witness the whole scene of them working on him and it not working. The medical examiner found that he had had a massive heart attack.
That is why that particular Scenario, wherein grandma says, "Bob passed away," I say, "Yes, it was a terrible loss," Pause, "You were there," is the worst Scenario, because this is when her normally kind lapse of memory turns to cruel.
Although that kind/cruel distinction doesn't hold in any case. My grandmother has dementia and she knows it. That is exceedingly cruel. She knows it in that she knows that she ought to be remembering certain things, like what she had for lunch, or where she lives, or how long she has lived there. She knows she used to be good at painting still lifes, but now she seems confused by color. She knows.
One of the reasons it is best to go along with the false stories or anachronistic memory moments many Alzheimer's patients have is that they can become violently angry or, in my grandmother's case, absolutely terrified when it is brought to their attention that they, quite simply, have lost their marbles.
"You were there." "Yes, I was there, and it was terrible. But we got through it." Pause. "How have I managed to lose two husbands?" I reply, "Yes, that's sad, and I miss them both, too. You've been a lucky woman. You've had two great husbands in your life when many women don't even find one." She says, "Yes, you're right. They were both wonderful men. Very different. Your grandfather was a sharp dresser and loved to dance. Bob didn't like clothes, but never stopped making me laugh. He made everybody happy." I put my arm around her and she seems to forget what we're talking about. She says, smiling, "I am so lucky to have a granddaughter like you. You are a wonderful person." I say, "I guess that runs in the family!" She smiles.
Of course, given that this runs in the family, I have no assurance that she actually has forgotten what we're talking about at this moment. It also runs in my family to pretend that everything is fine when it isn't.
Before leaving Florida, I took grandma home, made all the phone calls, fended off the neighbors, waited for the other relatives to arrive. Old people, it seems, are very gossipy about death. They don't surround it in hushed tones and ineffability the way younger people do. Maybe it's because they've seen it happen more times. I am not easily shocked, but I was shocked numerous times in Florida by the blatantness or insensitivity of older people to what I'd been through. And I was not once but twice subjected to this comment when I attended my grandfather's brother's funeral in Cleveland later that summer: "Wow. You must bring bad luck," as in, look how death happens when you're around. They meant that to be funny. I, of course, pretended like everything was just fine.
Just like I did when I got home from Florida, explained to a few people what happened, and then said I didn't want to talk about it. Of course, another reason why I "didn't want to talk about it" is that I didn't want to say that everything wasn't O.K. In general, however, I did this mostly as self-protection. When I was mugged a few years before all this happened, I found that many people's idea of consolation proceeded in such a way that it was more harmful to me than helpful: "Please, Jill, tell us exactly what happened. Repeat to us this humiliation. How is it that it came to occur? Did you take the safe path home? Will you ever feel secure walking at night alone again?" All this was partly out of true concern for me, but underlying it all was something like this, unspoken: "Please assure me that I am sufficiently different from you in the choices that I make that this random act of violence could never happen to me." Or, more insidious: "Oh, your black eye looks like dramatic eyeshadow. You even bruise perfectly!" Or, when a professor befriends me because she is concerned, another student says: "Wow, you should have got mugged a year ago!" O.K. So it's not just old people who are insensitive, who don't know how to tiptoe the line between support and their own selfishness or lack of empathic ability. We're all self-involved, anxious creatures waiting to be told everything will be O.K.
Really, everything is just fine.
The thing is, when you're dealing with someone with Alzheimer's, you have to give all that stuff upthe desire for absolute reciprocity of affection or attentionbecause there is no place for it. You have to give it up, or self-destruct.
My grandmother seems, in some way, to feel abandoned constantly, because she can't remember how often people call her, she is constantly terrified by what she can't remembershe has been abandoned by her own memoryand she has lost two husbands. She seems, however, to be incapable of experiencing those increments of abandonmentthose little things after which some of us pretend "everything is just fine," and move onthat are so devastating on a day-to-day basis for people still living "in time."
On the drive from Walnut Creek to Oakland I listen to music. Usually I listen to music that I might be reviewing for a local newspaper. I am always working.
"Heidegger reading group" consists of six or seven students and a professor, gathering on Tuesday nights at the professor's home. The rule is that once we have finished two paragraphs (that means, roughly, an hour or morebig paragraphs, complicated text), we begin drinking a nice red wine. We debate about what Heidegger meant in certain passages, or talk about what things change between Being and Time and later writings we've read. Students ask about passages they don't understand fully, or the professor tells us how incompetent the trans-lation is at some point, or shows us something about the text we might never have noticed on our own. Sometimes one of us disagrees with the professor but usually no one does.
This is the professor who once wrote, "Love is not wisdom, but it knows that it's not." I'm not certain that this phrase means the same thing to him that it does to me, mostly because I'm always quoting it way out of the context in which he wrote it.
Being and Time is about what the title says. If you wouldn't think someone could write a 500-page book about that, you wouldn't be alone. For Heidegger, humans are "Dasein," which in German means "Being-there." Being, according to Heidegger, is the thing most near to humans, but nonetheless is furthest in terms of the thought we've given to it. The fact that in order to "be" (that is, in order for us to exist), we already have to have some "understanding of Being" doesn't answer any question because it has not asked any question. It has merely assumed something to be true. Heidegger wants us to understand what sounds like gibberish: that the Being of beings is not a being. The professor would say, "Think of it this way: The catness of a cat is not itself a cat." What is it that makes a cat a cat? What is it that makes a being a being? This question is important because basic concepts, that is, concepts that form a base, a foundation, on which other concepts are built, are the way in which we come to "already" have an understanding of something (pardon the split infinitive) before we give it thought. They allow for unquestioned assumptions to operate. We think we know what Being is because we "are." We exist. But we have given no thought to what this means.
Here, however, is a question Heidegger cannot answer: Is my grandmother Dasein, even if she has no sense of time?
Heidegger writes, "Dasein always understands itself in terms of existencein terms of a possibility of itself." Existence always transpires in time and space. A naïve conception of time would say, "Well, your grandma may have 'lost track of time,' but she still lives 'in time' whether she knows it or not."
But that ignores rather than asks the question. What is my grandmother's existence? What is time?
Heidegger writes: "Dasein is in such a way as to be something which understands Being. Keeping this interconnection firmly in mind, we shall show that whenever Dasein tacitly understands and interprets something like Being, it does so with time as its standpoint. Time must be brought to light as the horizon for all understanding of Being."
Can a being without a sense of time, and thus, without an understanding of Being (catness), be a being?
The answer is, Heidegger would say, of course it can. It simply exists in the "everyday," "inauthentically." It hasn't grasped its own potential, but it has potential to do so.
My grandma, however, does not have that potential. She will not recover time and being in an authentic manner.
There are days when grandma and I have an almost normal conversation, too. Any of the various "Scenarios" I'm prepared for can launch into a real "extemporaneous" discussion of things. For instance, here's another Scenario that repeats every time I see her. Usually it occurs fairly soon after I arrive, brought on by seeing me, as I look like my Dad's side of the family. Now, I am from one of those heartland families who've known each other for quite awhile and the generations are friends. So my dad's parents and my mom's parents went out dancing together, or on boating trips, and my mom and dad went to Sunday school together, and, well, my mom and dad got married.
So grandma says to me, "How's Marta?" That's my other grandma. "She's fine," I say, "She recently had some surgery but is doing well. She said to say hi to you." Grandma then asks, "How's Russ?" That's my other grandfather whom she should know passed away some time ago. I say, "Russ passed away. Marta is remarried to a wonderful man named Carl. He takes care of her well, and they laugh a lot." Grandma says, "Oh, I'm glad she has found someone. It is terrible to be alone." I say, "Have you made any friends here?" This borders on wrong-question territory, since it requires short-term memory, but I know that at this point she has a few friends, and one of them she remembers a name for with some consistency: Winona.
"Yes. She has a funny name. Winona. Have you ever heard a name like that?" "Yes, there is a young actress in the movies named Winona Ryder." "Well, isn't that interesting?"
That is the Scenario. Out of it recently came something else, however. She said to me: "How's Marta?" I replied, "She's fine. She recently had some surgery but is doing well. She said to say hi to you." Grandma doesn't ask how Russ is, but instead asks how long it has been since I saw Marta. I tell her I visited last summer. I tell her how Marta and I kept renting movies that Carl didn't approve of, so he would go off to run errands, but he would periodically return, walk into the room, witness whatever was happening on the screen, look horrified, and ask me whether I'd like it if young children saw that. Marta would snort-laugh. I would say, "No, but I don't think we'd be watching this if young children were around." He would say, "But young children can get their hands on these things," and I'd say, "Yes, but it would be quite a dull world if the only art or entertainment that existed had to be appropriate for young children," etc. Come to think of it, this qualifies as a Scenario, as it replayed itself fairly consistently during my stay. (There was also the What Do You Think About Elian Gonzales Scenario.)
Perhaps Scenarios are methods by which families or other long-entwined people communicate with each other. They rehearse a theme or a difference with regard to themes without straying too far into uncomfortable or contested territory. As long as we let these topics air themselves as Scenarios, they remain unharmful. But if they erupt into actual Discussions (say, if my Dad is visiting Marta and Carl instead of me), they become rancorous.
Of course, perhaps the Scenario also partakes of the other disease I've diagnosed: pretending that everything is fine when it isn't.
Still, there is something to be said for thatthe "pretending." I no longer have to expostulate my views and principles to every ear and every officer of the peace who doesn't immediately see the world the way I do. There are some arguments I don't need to have in order to believe what I believe.
Back in the assisted living facility with grandma, we witness divergence from a Scenario. Instead of following "How's Marta?" with "How's Russ?" grandma asks when I've last seen Marta, and this diverges into a conversation about how independent and unique Marta is, and how she has always been that way. Grandma says she can't account for it, but she certainly admires it. Then she says, "You are like Marta. You can do anything you set your mind to."
Given that my grandma (Marietta) was a working mom long before there were working moms, it seems to me that she has been independent in some way, and I tell her so. She says, "Yes, it's good to have your own money. And I had some good friends at Rotor Tool" [her job]. Do you remember Verna?" "Yes, she was a nice lady." Grandma looks around the room, and says, "Isn't it wonderful that Daddy thought ahead to buy me this furniture?" I say, "It certainly is. He had good taste."
One day she says, "You are in college. You have a good memory. A memory is very important." I say, "Yes, but I still have to write everything down in my datebook or I won't remember to do it, and I have no excuses!" We laugh. She says, "You know, when I was younger, when people got old and had trouble remembering things, they didn't call it a disease. They were just old." I say, "I know. Many things are now called diseases that might not deserve the name." She says, "I'm not sick."
She goes to the bathroom, for a long time. I can hear her rifling in cupboards. I use her phone to check my messages, and then browse through the latest issue of Modern Maturity. Grandma still likes to read. In fact, sometimes when she is feeling panicked, she'll grab something and read it to me,regardless of whether it is a sugar packet, a shampoo bottle, or a book of heartwarming stories.
She comes out of the bathroom and says, "You sure surprised me!" I look up and smile. She continues, "When did you get here?" I say, "I thought I'd stop by and say hello on my way to some meetings. It is always so good to see you." She says, "Did I get everything from the plane?" I say, "Everything is taken care of." She says, "Isn't it wonderful that Daddy thought ahead to buy me this furniture?"
We decide to go for a walk, which means from her room, down the hall, down the stairs, into the main gathering room, at which point I'll hang out for awhile before I leave for Heidegger reading group, via TargetTM and Jamba JuiceTM or downtown Walnut Creek. On the way out the door of her room, she stops to look at her picture box. (Every room has a picture box with family photos and memorabilia of the room's inhabitant outside the doorprobably to help inhabitants find their own rooms when numbers no longer make sense.) Grandma says, "Isn't this a sweet box? Have you seen it yet?" I say, "Yes, I've seen it" (actually, I'm the one who made the collage, and I even bought the silly cloth butterflies that adorn the spaces between the photos). I say, "It's lovely. Hey. Who is that hot young thing?" (pointing at a picture of her). She laughs and says, "Can you believe it I'm 82 years old?" I say, "You don't look that old." She laughs.
As we walk down the hall, she says, "Listen, I don't want to complain, but I wonder how much longer I'm staying here. I really should be getting home."
On one particular Tuesday I am having an exceedingly bad/annoying day, full of all of the various brain-dead mishaps that can occur when the "absent-minded professor" side of my personality is in full tilt. (For instance, I somehow lost a stack of bills, paid, in their envelopes with stamps and ready to go, somewhere between my house and the mailbox. And I have no excuses.)
Normally when I am at my wit's end, I don't visit grandma, because it's no good for either of us. But I go this week anyway.
And today is not a good day for grandma either, it seems, though at first all is well. When I arrive she is siting in the rec room with some ladies. It is cocktail day and her pal Winona loves Manhattans, and can't stop talking, rather charmingly, about how "thirsty" she is. Grandma doesn't drink, so we go up to her room.
It soon becomes clear that today will not be semi-lucid conversation day but rather pacing and rifling day. Downstairs at the cocktail table she remembered that I was a student at UC Berkeley, and told all the ladies about this proudly. Winona called me a dummy when I said I was getting a Ph.D.
Upstairs, in her room, she thinks I just picked her up at the airport and she's never been to this room before. She's worried that she didn't pick up her luggage.
I tell her we had all the things sent to her. A bit later I mention that this is her new home and she's been here for "a few months." Then she thinks I've moved, and wants my new address.
"Address-obtainment" is also a Scenario. It starts with mention of mail (by her), commences to rifling (on shelves, in purse, various drawers) for the address book. I then check the address she has for me and confirm that it is current.
Today, however, the rifling produces no address book, and this produces pacing, and a fairly advanced panic. At one point she realizes she has an envelope of photos in her hand, stops, and says "Oh, here are the photos you wanted to see." We look them over.
Grandma notes that we are in picture-gazing mode, so she rifles around for her photo box. She finds it, and as she is bringing it to the couch, she stopsor rather freezesmidway, looks pained, and says, "I have some sad news for you. Something terrible has happened. I'm alone."
This means "Bob has passed away." I'm steeling myself for the "It was terrible" scenario and hoping it doesn't lead to the "you were there" ending.
She sits down. I say, "I know. I'm sorry." Pause. I say, "I'm so glad you're here with us in Walnut Creek, California." She looks at me. "Tell me. This is terrible to ask. How did it happen?" I explain that he had a heart attack while swimming in the ocean. Terrible, but of the ways to go, for him, perhaps the best. She says, "Can you imagine how it is to have to ask these questions? I think I must be in shock. I need a few days to recover."
So you see, it would not be helpful for me to point out to her that this happened a year and a half ago.
She says, "No Bob. I can hardly believe it. I'm alone." "I'm sorry," I say, "I'm glad you're here in California. It was hard for us to have you so far away." "You're a good person," she says. "I was married to your grandfather for 40 years." "Whoa," I say, "I haven't even lived 40 years." Here's another scenario that always occurs in the exact same words: "Can you believe it I'm 82 years old!" "You don't look that old!" Somehow her repetition creates my own kind of repetition. I cruise the Main slowly, over and over again. We do these things just to be with people.
"I was married to your grandfather for 40 years. Bob and I were together for 17 years." "That's quite a good record. You have been blessed with two good men."
She begins to pray, out loud. "Dear Lord, please give me strength. Thank you for your blessings. I have been lucky. I have been fortunate. Bless Jill and take care of her." She looks at me and says, "You are so good, I am sure only good things will happen to you."
"Thank you for saying that," I say, and I hug her. She seems to forget what we're talking about. A kind touch, a smile, a silly story, a listening ear, an offer of answers to questionsthis is what I can give her. It is something.
My grandma no longer has a sense of time. She certainly has no sense of "the meaning of Being," whatever that is, yet she certainly is still here, and she is still the woman I've known all my life, my grandmotherrecognizably so, physically, and, by me, intellectually or even in the form of unthought "sense." How she holds herself in her posture, what her face does when someone says something hurtful or inappropriate about another person, certain kinds of humor, her laugh, her deep and abiding love of ice creamthese are the same. There is something there that does not rely on memoryif it is changed, it is changed in the way anyone living in a state of fairly constant terror would changeshe panics, she rifles, she paces, she asks questions that are terrible to have to ask, she knows she has lost something precious, and she loves her family. And that love is real and palpable, and a sign of something deeper than memory, intellect, being or time. It is, if you will, a kind of knowledge. Love is not wisdom, but it knows it is not. --
Jill Stauffer was inspired to write this piece by her grandma Etta's sustained capacity for joy. Other inspiration came in the form of a chronicle of Alzheimer's in the October 2001 Harper's. The article, "Death in Slow Motion: A Descent into Alzheimer's" by Eleanor Cooney, deals with a case of Alzheimer's further advanced than my grandma's, but it made me see that it was possible to communicate something about the disease.