92: Understanding Nana

92: Understanding Nana

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Living with Alzheimer's & Other Dementias

Understanding Nana

People who don’t cherish their elderly have forgotten whence they came and whither they go.

~Ramsey Clark

It’s funny, but even at a year and a half old, my second daughter is the spitting image of my grandmother. There are moments when Iris turns to me and I am gobsmacked by the likeness, made ready to banish any skepticism about reincarnation. Iris has Nana’s smile, that rascally twinkle in her eye, and her mouth and brow take the same scrunched shape when she focuses on a tiny detail, like fitting a colored peg into the Lite-Brite.

Author Elizabeth Stone said about having children, “. . . it is momentous. It is to decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body.” It is amazing to discover, or perhaps rediscover, that you can love and be loved so deeply. And every day I look at Iris, I am reminded of another unique love — between grandchild and grandparent.

As a kid, I was consumed with the anticipation of Nana’s arrival for the holidays. I remember the feeling of her hug, breathing in her powdery perfume, sitting for hours at her feet while she brushed my hair. She’d marvel aloud at the many different shades of gold her painter’s eye could see in my curly tresses. Nana couldn’t get enough time with me, or I with her. Though I was one of four siblings, when I was alone with Nana, I felt like I was everything to her. She saved the locks of my freshly cut hair, the cards I made for her, my class photos, programs from school plays, all of which I later found when cleaning out her house. The hair was tucked in a beautiful silver box, labeled with my name and the various dates of my trims.

I’ve since held them up to my own daughter’s head, and marveled at the colors. These days, I save neatly zip-locked locks from my daughter’s haircuts, finger paintings, bathtime videos, in that desperate effort to freeze time. Like Nana, I’m attempting to grasp time as it slips through my fingers.

After dementia began to take hold of Nana, our relationship shifted. Occasional forgetfulness and confusion gave way to confounding outbursts of anger and paranoia. I remember a particularly brutal Christmas Eve, when there was no denying that I had become a stranger to her. I wore one of her fabulous Pucci print shirts with the express intention of amusing her. It was one of the many chic items she had happily handed down to me. When she saw me, her face tightened into a scowl, her eyes darted about and she accused me of stealing. I was an enemy. At the time I thought she was being unspeakably mean to me. I was unable to put myself in her shoes, and I was in denial about the road that lay ahead for Nana and all of us who were close to her.

Eventually, our holiday time together turned into rushed and guilt-ridden visits to the assisted living home. I’d re-comb Nana’s hair, silently and unfairly cursing the nurses for styling it in a way Nana never would have approved. A ponytail? Seriously? Didn’t they know she’d always choose elegant and sophisticated over cute or infantile? Didn’t they read dissatisfaction on her face when she looked in the mirror?

I know she communicated with this overworked staff in fits and starts, in the dialog of a two-year-old, but did she have to suffer the indignity of being brushed off, rushed, misinterpreted, and spoken to like a toddler? She still had something to say, she still deserved to be heard.

Even though no one could understand her words, I always got the gist of what she was saying. I knew when Nana was joking with me. She’d get that devilish grin and tease me about how handsome my husband is, under her breath, with a requisite elbow jab, all in gibberish. Somehow I still knew when she was happy or sad, bothered or giddy. And yet I demonized the staff in my head, for not “getting” her, for not interacting with her as you would my charming, independent, sophisticated Nana. I did this even though it was this staff that did all the heavy lifting day in and day out, who dedicated their lives to caregiving, and to making sure all of Nana’s needs were met every exhausting hour of the day.

On New Year’s Day 2008 I brought my tiny firstborn daughter to see her. Nana was wearing a pink paper crown that said Happy New Year. This time I didn’t silently curse the staff. It was actually kind of perfect — cheesy and perfect. A crown befitting the simple joy of childhood celebrations. A joy I was ready to reconnect with. The only “words” she uttered that day were various combos of “doo,” “dee,” and, “doe,” and she had a tendency to sing them.

Nana was nervous and thrilled, overwhelmed, and amazed when she held baby Oona. Though she may not have been able to understand the concept that the baby had been born on her birthday, she seemed to grasp a deep kind of meaning. She “told” me that she was happy for me, that my little redheaded child was a wonder, was God’s greatest gift, that she couldn’t believe that her baby had this baby. She told me all that through her new language of sounds and tunes. Her language evaded everyone around her, but not me. Nana may have been losing the ability to speak, but I was relearning how to listen.

Any mother can attest to knowing what her child is saying, feeling, needing, even though the ability to speak has not yet been refined. I’m the master of translating for baby Iris, and I’ve seen friends wonder how the heck I knew she was asking for more butter, or requesting “Old MacDonald” over the “Itsy Bitsy Spider,” when all she used was a random combo of, “buh,” “la la” and “wee.” Did my time with Nana help hone this skill? Every time I flex this Mom superpower, I’m reminded of that desire to protect Nana from being misunderstood. Boil it down, and I’m simply reminded of our basic human need to connect.

Nothing can prepare you for the grief of a loved one slipping away. There were incredibly hard days for Nana and my dad, and the rest of us. There was the suffering and fear and frustration at the onset, the stress of finding the right caregivers, the guilt of not having more time or resources.

As I experience Iris’s little triumphs as she discovers speech, I’m reminded of Nana’s gradual heartbreaking loss. Every day Iris reminds me of Nana. Shakespeare famously referred to the “seventh” and last “age” of life as “second childishness and mere oblivion,” but it’s not oblivion. In her own way, my grandmother knew and was known. Dementia and Alzheimer’s inarguably rob us of so much, but they can’t rob us of our most precious connections.

~Sarah Rafferty

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