My grandmother turned 92 on Thursday. For most people, this is quite the accomplishment, but for her even more so because she has been suffering from dementia for as long as I can remember, possibly 20 or 25 years, although she wasn’t immediately diagnosed. Only 3% of dementia patients live past 14 years of their diagnosis. Her defying of this statistic shows just how strong of a person my grandmother is, physically and mentally. She lived at her home, where she and my grandfather raised my dad, aunt, and uncle, until October 2009, when she came down with pneumonia and a respiratory infection. Since then, she has lived in a local nursing home and has been in and out of several hospitals. Despite her poor health, I am convinced she will live to be 100.
This is a woman who suffered the loss from the tragic loss of her daughter at age 20, and the sudden deaths of her husband and oldest son, my dad. We did not tell her about my dad because we feared it would take an emotional toll on us, only for her to not comprehend what we were saying. We were also afraid she would comprehend, and it would take a toll on her health.
Growing up, I wasn’t that close with her. She was both physically absent, as she lived two hours away from us and I usually just saw her on holidays, and mentally absent, as she was already suffering from dementia. It wasn’t until my dad passed away that I realized just how important she was to me; she and my uncle are my only remaining immediate family members on that side of my family. But still, we weren’t that close because the dementia impeded her cognitive abilities, and restricted our chances for a relationship.
Two of my favorite days of the past seven years have been her 85th and 90th birthday parties. At each one, I met new loved ones, good friends of the family, and reconnected with relatives. I heard new stories about her, which interested me to no end because they enabled me to see what she was like, what her personality was, before the dementia took her hostage.
When I went to visit her yesterday, card and flowers in hand, I wasn’t expecting much. The last few times I’d seen her, she barely talked, if at all, and sometimes cursed, as is a common behavior of dementia patients. The past Christmas was the best I’d seen her in quite some time. She got a big smile on her face when she saw me and, when prompted, said my name and that I am her granddaughter.
Thursday was like a miracle. Not only was she talking and lucid, but she was speaking in complete sentences and was able to carry on conversations with me. When I asked her if she knew who I was, she responded, “Yes.” When I said how nice it was to see her, she responded, “It’s nice to see you, too.” She kept smiling, which melted my heart. Occasionally, she’d glance out in the hall at the male nurse, then turn back to me and smile. When she said, “This is such a nice surprise,” I nearly died. A while later, I got up to leave. I was halfway to the door when she said, “Don’t go.” I said, “Alright, I’ll stay a while longer,” and sat back down. When I finally did go, I asked, “How about I come back next week and read the newspaper to you?” (She still enjoys reading the paper). She paused and responded, “We could do that.”
A few seconds later, a nurse, also a longtime family friend, peeked her head in the room and asked, “Is she talking?!” and then coaxed Grandma into giving me a kiss before I left. By the time I got to my car, I was almost in tears.
It was such a wonderful visit with such a wonderful, strong woman. She has lived a long life, and although a good part of it has been tragic, she is still thriving at 92 despite her poor health. My visit to her, which will be the first of many, was a microcosm of how she always perseveres through whatever life hands her.
Happy Birthday, Grandma. May you have many, many more.