My grandfather, who I called Grampy, had severe dementia in the last nine years of his life. It caused him to do things like offer people scotch neat at 10 o’clock in the morning, collect an obscene amount of hair combs, and exclaim things like, “she’s got an ass that just won’t quit” while walking behind a very annoyed-looking nurse.
For much of those nine years, it was unnerving to see him forget things, and to see the confused look on his face. He was like a wrinkly, white-haired infant trying to figure something out for the first time. As I was growing up, Grampy was someone to revere. He raised 11 kids, proudly served in WWII, and went to church every Sunday. He was of an older generation, all of which is to say Grampy didn’t take shit from children.
One Spring day, I was throwing a hissy fit because my mom had told me I couldn’t do something I wanted to do. As my mom and her sister chatted on the front porch of my grandparents’ Salem, Massachusetts home, I threw myself on the floor of the hallway and cried as loudly as I could.
“It’s not FAIR,” I screamed over and over again.
From the next room, Grampy peered out from behind his newspaper and bellowed, “SHUT UP ALREADY.”
I went silent immediately, hot tears rolling down my red cheeks as I caught my breath. I was stunned. No adult had ever told me to shut up before. I took his statement to mean that he was deeply, irreversibly mad at me. I sat quietly on the floor, hugging my legs to my chest.
Moments later, Grampy got up from his chair, went to the kitchen and announced, “we’ve got donuts and crullers in the kitchen.”
I followed him and sat down across from him at their small kitchen table. We each grabbed a powdered donut and ate them quietly. When I finished my donut, he said, “you must’ve needed that. Here, have another.”
And the two us of sat there, collecting powder on our shirts and our faces until our bellies were full. We didn’t talk about my hissy fit or his yelling at me. What I would come to learn about Grampy is that he was never one to hold a grudge — at least, not against a family member. And he was never, ever, ever stingy with food.
In fact, I don’t think I ever had an unhappy meal with Grampy. No matter what we were eating, he was delighted to be eating it. He slurped clam chowder like a vacuum. He ate cheese and crackers with unparalleled velocity. And don’t even get me started on corn on the cob: butter dripping from every surface, spraying as he worked his way around it. The man enjoyed food and I loved watching him enjoying it. He made everything look so delicious that I started to eat the things he would eat.
Every time we went to a restaurant I’d order a cup of clam chowder and Grampy would chime in, “make that two.”
The sight of a seven-year-old ordering clam chowder always made my grandmother giggle.
“You two and your clam chowdah,” she’d say.
When the dementia first crept in, it caused Grampy to request pot roast at odd times, or he’d compulsively offer you a drink, even if you already had one in your hand. And then later, it caused him to forget who I was, who my mom was, and eventually who his siblings were. It was painful seeing his kids have to say goodbye to him slowly, inch by inch, as each memory and contact with reality slowly, gradually faded away. But what was most painful was seeing my grandfather lose Shirley, his wife, my grandmother. My grandparents were high school sweethearts who had 11 children, 30 grandchildren, and were married 62 years before my grandmother died suddenly of a massive heart attack at the age of 86.
At the time that she died, my grandmother had been Grampy’s primary caretaker. So the day after she died, my mom and her family had to scramble to get Grampy into a supervised living situation. Without supervision, Grampy was known to throw fits and walk around public places in his underwear. But apparently, even assisted living facilities are businesses with business needs, and finding a place for your dementia-d grandfather to sleep, eat, and bathe with comfort and care requires a day of negotiation. So, I offered to “watch” my grandfather while my mom and her siblings negotiated his new lease.
Grampy and I went to the courtyard. It was August 7th and it was a beautiful day. I helped lower him onto a bench and sat down next to him. I was scared. I was scared to talk to my grandfather because I didn’t know what he knew. Was he able to understand that Nanny had died? Did he think I was a total stranger? Was he scared of me? What if he threw one of his fits and I didn’t know how to help him? And then I saw that he was crying. And I felt like an asshole. Duh, I thought. Loss is loss. And you don’t lose the love of your life without it resonating in your whole body, dementia or no dementia.
So I put my arm around him and delicately held my 87-year-old grandfather. I was scared of hugging him too tightly, for fear that I would break him.
“My Shirley died last night,” he finally said.
I croaked back, “I’m so sorry,” as I tried desperately not to wail cry in his face. It didn’t feel right for me to be more beside myself than he was. You’re supposed to outlive your grandparents, you’re not necessarily supposed to outlive your life partner. Plus, Grampy clearly wasn’t aware that his Shirley was my grandmother.
I could have reminded him of that fact. I could have told my grandfather who I was. I could have yelled at him, “Catharine. Catharine! I’m your granddaughter, Catharine. I’m Carol’s daughter. Carol is your daughter. CAROL. She is your daughter. And I’m her daughter. Remember me. Please.”
But that felt aggressive, unuseful, and selfish in that moment. Instead, I made the decision to go along with whatever his reality was. Now, looking back as a trained improviser, I see that as the moment I decided to “yes, and” my grandfather. The moment I decided to stop being so focused on myself and my nerves, and instead focus on the reality my scene partner, my grandfather, was setting up. It was the moment I decided to meet my grandfather where he was, and to play with him within whatever parameters he set up.
In the courtyard, my grandfather took off his glasses and wiped tears from his eyes.
He said, “Shirley was the most beautiful woman I ever knew.”
He simply wanted to talk about her, so I asked, “what was she like?”
And then I got to hear my grandfather describe Shirley. Not just Shirley, my grandmother, but Shirley the person. The woman he was too shy to talk to in high school, whose dimpled smile never ceased to arrest him. The woman who studied at Colby-Sawyer to be a lab technician. The woman who made their house a home, who filled it with children and love, and whose resilience and wit and charm knew no bounds. Shirley. The woman I was lucky to call my grandmother.
Then, my grandfather pulled a green plastic hair comb from his breast pocket, held it in his lap, and said, “I hope the teachers are nice.”
Uh, what? I thought as I wiped tears and snot from my face. I was completely thrown by this sudden and strange shift in reality.
“Is this your first day?” he asked.
I stammered, “yes?” having absolutely no idea what he was talking about, but refusing to correct him or alter the reality he had set up.
And then he said, “mine too. But don’t worry, I hear they’re usually pretty nice to the first graders.”
I would later learn that the site of the assisted living facility we were sitting in was only a few yards from the schoolhouse my grandfather had attended when he was a young child. So basically, my grandfather was talking to me as if I were a new classmate on the first day of first grade.
“Are you nervous?” Grampy asked.
“Very,” I replied.
I was nervous. I was nervous about living life with one less grandparent, one less barrier between me and the world. I was nervous that I would say the wrong thing to Grampy and I’d upset him. I was nervous about going home to my mom and that seeing her deal with losing her mom would only make me think about losing her. I was nervous that I was losing my childhood and there was nothing I could do about it.
Grampy held out his green plastic comb to me and asked, “do you want this comb? I have plenty of others in my room.”
It was a friendship offering, a tangible symbol of our weird time-warp, grieving friendship bond. I choked back tears, trying really hard to do a good job at playing my newfound role of “first grader.” I took the comb and said thank you. I didn’t have the words to tell him how much it meant to me. So I just squeezed his hand.
We continued to sit in the courtyard for another hour. We talked about Grampy’s siblings, his mom, his college days, his — ahem — very smart and very talented grandchildren. I even tried to get him to tell me who is favorite kid was. He thought about it for a second before breaking into a wide grin and saying, “I’ll never tell.” He had this twinkle in his eye that I remembered him having when I was a little kid. I hadn’t seen that twinkle in a few years.
Finally, all the negotiations and shuffling that had been happening inside were finished and I was told I could bring Grampy to his new room. I got him settled into his bed with the newspaper and rearranged a few photos per his very specific requests, which he issued from his bed. Soon, my uncle came to “relieve me” of my grandfather-tending duties. I returned the comb to my grandfather’s collection, knowing that he’d miss it soon enough.
I kissed him goodbye and said, “I love you grampy” before walking out.
As I crossed the threshold, I overheard Grampy saying to my uncle, in what he thought was a whisper, “boy, that one’s easy on the eyes, huh?”
My immediate thought was aw, my grandfather thinks I’m pretty before it hit me how weird it is to hear your grandfather talk about you like you’re a lady he’s gonna hit on at a bar. But it made me smile. Because, for the same reason he was able to talk about me like we weren’t blood related, we were able to be friends that day. We were able to be nervous classmates together. I was able to hear about my grandmother in a way I never had before.
Dementia sucks. It steals people away from their lives and their loved ones. But on that day with Grampy, it offered us a chance to find each other in a new way, in a new world without Shirley. And I like to think him calling me easy on the eyes was some sort of twinkle-in-the-eye indication that maybe I carry some of Shirley’s goodness with me.
I took my first improv class two weeks after that day on the park bench. Grampy died a year and a half later on December 6, 2013 when I was in the process of rehearsing for my very first show at Second City.
The last time I saw Grampy was on Thanksgiving just a few weeks prior. We could tell he wasn’t doing so well. His breathing seemed labored, his movements were slow, and the only people he could still name were his mother and Shirley. But my mom sang a song he used to love to sing and he sang along, not skipping a single lyric. I winked at Grampy. He smiled and winked back, and I saw that twinkle in his eye. And in that teeny tiny moment, I swear he said goodbye to me.
Grampy was my clam chowdah buddy, my plate-cleaning mentor, someone who humbled me when I needed to deal with not getting what I wanted. He was a good friend to me on a difficult first day. Sometimes I wonder what our relationship would have been like had he not had dementia. But I’m not sure there is use in wondering. Because one of the greatest things Grampy taught me was when you accept people as they are in any given moment, you get their best parts.