This morning I accompanied my grandparents to their church. Mom and Dad usually tag-team that task, but it fell to me today, since they were away, riding their bikes in the MS 150. I'm really glad my parents did that, because yes, it's a good and strong-hearted thing for them to do, but also, if my parents are spending the weekend riding their bikes one HUNDRED and FIFTY miles, how old could I possibly be? Not very.
Nonetheless, while Dad and Mom were off pedaling, I was sitting with my grandparents in church. Sometime in the last year Grandma has turned a corner, and she is slipping farther and farther away. She no longer remembers my name, and sometimes she tells me things that make no sense, that she has seven children, or she exclaims that I have a lot of dogs! So many dogs! Mom says that when people get to that level of memory loss it's important to listen and respond to the emotion of what they're saying, and not worry about the facts. So I laugh with Grandma about how many dogs I have, or agree that yes, seven is a LOT of children, I can understand why she would be tired.
One of the reasons I enjoy taking my grandparents to church is that it assuages my guilt at how little time I spend with them. The days slip by so quickly, in a flurry of appointments and baseball practice and trips to the library. There is always something to be done and tomorrow, I'm sure tomorrow we'll stop in. But we don't, and when I see them on these random Sunday mornings I study them, to see what has been lost in my absence.
Grandpa still seems pretty much the same as always, if a little flustered by the pace of it all. He is less able to work a room than he used to, but it is a loss of degree, not ability. His bones are collapsing, small and light, like the hollow skeleton of a bird, and now I reach down to kiss his cheek. He fusses, as ever, over Grandma, tucking a napkin under her chin before he hands her a cup of coffee. He has only finally retired last year, but his real life's work is making his Alyce presentable.
His Alyce, however, is no longer playing her part. They had a routine, a schtick, if you will. The pastor and his wife. Those of you who grew up in or around "The Ministry" know this routine. He will proclaim and she will concur, and the two of them will be above reproach. Not quite human, perhaps, but unassailable.
Grandma can't remember her lines anymore. When she talks, if she can be bothered, she sometimes slips into what's called "word salad", a jumble of phrases and sounds no longer knit together by meaning. Today she sipped her coffee and said mildly, "I like to be morning. I like life. I like skizznit. I like - I love my husband. And so we see that indeed."
Indeed. I listened to her, trying to tease out what she could be trying to say, and was reminded of young Max, who, as a 18 month old, would walk up to me and proclaim something in a great torrent of words and word-like-sounds. He'd stand there, working his fat hands dramatically in the air between us, declaring whatever it was in paragraphs of nearly English language. I'd listen, then nod and say something non-committal - "oh really?" or "hmmm." No matter what I said, Max would look startled, glare, and spit out, "WHAT?"
Except it's funny when someone is growing into understanding. Not so much when the understanding is receding. It's like the difference between the skin on a baby's stomach and the patch on the top of my foot, where I scraped of the top layer of skin when I stumbled on a step. Both shine, bright and pink and smooth, but only one draws your fingers to wonder at its satiny feel.
In church, during a song, I glanced a few rows behind us where a tiny girl was dancing. She stood, gripping damp fistfuls of her bright dress, bobbing at the knees. He hair sprayed up from a band on top of her head and she swayed and grinned. Her feet twitched and worked as she struggled for the coordination to lift them in time with the pulse of the music. I glanced back to Grandma, whose own feet twitched on the foot rests of her wheelchair. Her legs move to the pulse of Parkinson's.
Of course it's all been said before - how very alike are the young and the old. Similar transitions, performed in reverse. I remember holding my newborn boys and watching each one of them breathe and unfurl in the air. Their skin was still printed with the creases that showed how they were folded up in utero and before my eyes they filled up with life, it surged and plumped their skin. They looked to me like tender new leaves, uncurling.
But of course there is the other end of that cycle too, and I looked at my grandparent's hands. Grandpa rubbed his papery fingers over Grandma's own dry, unfeeling ones. It is the other end of the same process that enchanted me, yet who watches in wonder now?
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