my grandma lost her words a few years ago. the years before that they were more and more jumbled every time we talked. we had been a part for many years but her and my grandfather moved up two years ago, very close to me, so i have seen her more and more.
it is hard to be around someone who can’t talk, who can’t communicate, but who you love. i remember her being a very strong and capable woman, always bustling about, never sitting down to eat herself but constantly serving everyone else. she fell recently and now she can’t get out of bed. she is in a place where there are other people with dementia, where she is surrounded by people who can’t remember who they are or what they are doing.
it is a hard place to visit. i am not very good at knowing what to do in the face of suffering, like so many. but my Muslim friend and neighbor taught me what to do with my grandma. My neighbor, Maryan, visited my grandma the other day with me and my children and my mother. Maryan had never met my grandma but I had talked about her often. i was afraid of what Maryan would think of us, would think of Americans who sent their loved ones off to be cared for by strangers. but she didn’t want to discuss any of that. when we got to the care facility Maryan went straight for my grandmother and clasped her hands in her own. she kissed her, looked in her eyes, and told her over and over again: I love you, i love you. my grandmother wouldn’t let go, my friend was her new friend, and the entire visit Maryan and my grandmother were a little enclave of mutual adoration. i told Maryan this should be her job, but she told me she couldn’t do it, that she would cry all the time. that is why you would be so good at it, i said.
now, when i visit my grandmother, i do what my friend taught me. Maryan taught me to look for the softest, cleanest bathroom and to put it around my grandmother’s shoulders, which are always too cold. she taught me to always hold my grandmother’s hand, to always look her in the eye. to give her as many kisses as she wants, to stroke her hair, to tell her how much i love her. i used to feel so paralyzed by my failure to be able to fix anything about this situation: my grandmother, her pain, her lack of ability to speak, the other residents lost in their own worlds of forgotten memories. but Maryan taught me that fixing the pain isn’t what we are called to do. all we can do is remind people of how loved and valuable they are in any way that we can. Maryan told me that when people are very old they are like little children. and like little children we are to love them, to look into their eyes and tell them they are safe and known and loved. we cannot fix anything. but we can connect, and that seems to me to be the reason we were put here on this terrible, wonderful earth.