I hadn’t seen my beloved Gramma Jewell since 2010. Far too long, perhaps the longest in my entire life I’d ever gone in between visits with her, but for various reasons I still don’t fully understand, in recent years my relationship with my Gramma had been drastically curtailed. But now, because of some unanticipated and odd combination of good fortune, courage, and audacity, I was going to get to see my Gramma! So this past weekend, off I went with my mom on a quick trip to Spokane, Washington, where my Gramma — who turned 92 in May — lives in an assisted living facility.
We find my Gramma in her room at the assisted living facility. She is sitting in a wheelchair reading a book.
Jenny: Hi, Gramma, it is me, your granddaughter Jenny!
Gramma: Oh, Jenny! Hello, dear! (We hug and kiss.)
Gramma: You are Jenny?
Gramma: Have you started college yet?
Jenny: My daughter Isobel just started college a couple of weeks ago!
Gramma: Oh. Your daughter Isobel…..I can’t believe how much you look like Isobel! You don’t look old enough to have a child in college….how old is Isobel?
Jenny: Isobel is 18. I am 47. That’s old enough!
Gramma: You work at Willamette University?
Jenny: I work at Marylhurst University. Isobel’s dad Jean-David works at Willamette. And a long time ago I was a student at Willamette.
Gramma: And you live in Portland.
Jenny: And I live in Portland.
Gramma: And you are Jenny.
I brought a little jar of raspberries with me to my first visit with my Gramma Jewell. I brought some chocolate, too. I know she loves raspberries and dark chocolate even though she pretends as though she doesn’t. I put three raspberries on the upturned lid of the jar and held them before my Gramma. She carefully picked up each raspberry and one after the other popped them into her mouth. I offered her more raspberries but she declined. (I wondered if she remembered eating raspberries from Fred’s garden when we were last together in 2010.)
Then I broke off three small squares of dark chocolate and gave one to my mom, popped one in my mouth, and offered the third to my Gramma. She carefully took it between her right thumb and index finger, held it in front of her eyes closely to examine it and then placed it on her tongue. I watched her chew it and then suck it as it melted. Her brows were furrowed a bit – was she surprised by the bitterness?
Gramma: Your brother is Gabe?
Jenny: My brother is Jeremy. Gabe is Rachel’s brother and Martha’s son. Gabe and Rachel are cousins to me and my brother Jeremy.
Gramma: You helped Jeremy a lot growing up. (My brother Jeremy was born deaf and visually impaired.)
Jenny: I tried to make sure Jeremy understood what others were saying and others understood what Jeremy was saying.
Gramma: You and Jeremy were close?
Jenny: Yes! Very close and we had a lot of fun together as kids.
Jenny: Gramma, I remember when on my breaks from school I would come to Menlo Park, California to have “R & R” with you and Grandpa.
Gramma: R & R?
Jenny: Rest and relaxation. That’s what you would call it!
Gramma: Oh! We’d find walnuts on our walks and crack them with our heels!
Jenny: You and I would walk all over town and we’d go to the market to get treats for supper.
Gramma: Oh, yes!
Jenny: We’d get roast chicken, special salads from the deli, a bottle of red wine, and little cheese cakes for dessert. Grandpa loved it!
Gramma: Oh, yes!
Jenny: Shall we take a walk outside? It is a lovely day.
Not having seen my Gramma for four years, the intensity of the experience overwhelmed me. I became irresistibly compelled to sleep. I curled up on her couch under a blanket. My Gramma was sitting in her wheelchair parallel to the couch. She held my left hand in her right hand as I napped.
We find my Gramma finishing her breakfast in the assisted living dining room. There’s a bulletin board with announcements and a daily trivia question.
Mom: The trivia question for today is, “How many sides does a pentagon have?”
Jenny: Well, a decagon has ten sides.
Mom: So, how many sides does a pentagon have?
Mom: Really? Wow!
Jenny: Yeah, that’s right, because a pentagram is a five pointed star, so a pentagon would have five sides. Great memory, Gramma!
We wheel my Gramma back to her room. She needs help to use the toilet so we call her caregiver.
Assisted Living caregiver: Are you taking her to church at 2:00?
Mom: Do you want to go to church, Mommy?
Jenny: Gramma, would you like to go to church this afternoon?
Gramma: No. Do you want to go?
Jenny: No, thanks. I don’t want to go to church.
Mom: Jennifer is a Buddhist.
Gramma: When did you become a Buddhist?
Jenny: I think I’ve been a Buddhist for a long time but I didn’t really know it until several years ago when a friend formally introduced me and I started attending teachings about Buddhism. Then in 2009 I decided to commit myself to the Buddhist path and I took a special vow; it is called “taking refuge.”
Gramma: What does that mean, to be a Buddhist?
Jenny: It means I am committed to working with my own mind so I can become more compassionate, wise, and present to what is happening moment-to-moment.
Gramma: I read something about Buddhism in a book. (She picks up a book and starts looking through it to find the passage.)
Mom: How did you sleep last night, Mommy?
Gramma: I always sleep well…Did you hear the thunder?
Jenny: No! Was there lightning, too?
Gramma: Yes, the lightning filled my room.
Gramma: You teach?
Jenny: Yup. I do teach.
Jenny: Yes, I teach at Marylhurst.
Gramma: And you teach Gerontology.
Jenny: Yes, I do teach Gerontology.
Gramma: Do you start school tomorrow?
Jenny: This is the last week of summer term. I have three weeks off after that before the new school year begins.
Gramma: Jean-David is Isobel’s father.
Jenny: Yes, that’s right.
Gramma: And he teaches?
Jenny: Yes, he teaches, too.
Gramma: At…Willamette University?
Jenny: Yup, that’s right, at Willamette University.
Gramma: What does he teach?
Jenny: Well…he is a musician. Do you know what instrument he plays?
Jenny: Nope! Piano!
Gramma: (giggles) Oh, that’s right. And he is Isobel’s father.
After my second day visiting with my Gramma, an extended family member (who sees her almost daily) asks me how the visit went. I tell them that the visit was great and that my Gramma and I had many interesting conversations.
They respond, “Really? We never do.”
I think to myself: Of course you never do. That’s because there’s a profound difference between demanding of a person with memory struggles “Don’t you remember!” and inviting them into a conversation.
Jenny: How did you sleep last night, Gramma?
Gramma: I always sleep well!
Jenny: Did you have any dreams?
Jenny: Why don’t you think about whether or not you had any dreams, just to make sure?
Gramma: Did you hear the thunder last night?
Jenny: No, I didn’t! Was there lightning, too?
Gramma: Yes—it filled my room.
Jenny: Cool! Shall we go for a walk outside?
Gramma: You live in Portland?
Jenny: Yes, I live in Portland.
Gramma: With Jean-David?
Jenny: Jean-David lives in Portland, too, but we don’t live together. We haven’t lived together since our daughter Isobel was a baby. We aren’t married any more but we are still close friends and Isobel’s family.
Gramma: You went on that big steamship to Europe for your honeymoon.
Jenny: Wow, great memory! We went on the QE2 ship but we didn’t go for our honeymoon, we went the year before I gave birth to Isobel. Jean-David and I sailed from Manhattan, New York, to Southampton, England. Then we went to Ireland and France.
Gramma: How old is Jean-David?
Jenny: Jean-David is 58. I will be 48 in December. Isobel is 18. And my mom, your daughter, is 68.
Gramma: Where does he live?
Jenny: In Portland.
Gramma: With you?
Jenny: No, we haven’t been married or lived together since Isobel was a baby.
Gramma: What is that ring you are wearing?
Jenny: Ah! This is a ring you gave me many, many years ago. Do you recognize it?
(I take the ring off and hand it to my Gramma.)
Gramma: (She closely examines the ring.) Yes, I recognize it!
It is time to leave my Gramma. We kiss each other on the lips. She strokes my forearms and looks me in the eyes. I smooth her silver hair. I tell her I am so happy to have seen her again. She giggles. I tell her I love her very much and that she will always be my special person. She says she loves me very much, too. As my mom and I leave her room, she calls out, “Give my love to Jean-David!”