My grandmother turned 91 years old just a few days ago. She didn’t remember it was her birthday. By the time we explained it was her birthday and then sang “Happy Birthday” to her, she had forgotten again. It’s moments like those, where she can’t retain the simplest information for 5 minutes, when I wonder, “Who is this woman sitting in front of me? Is the person I knew as my grandmother still there?” I also question where my grandmother is during those moments when she throws a tantrum and seems so agitated and angry that she tells us she’s all alone with no family. My mother believes that this hurtful side to my grandmother is not caused by my grandmother’s dementia but instead, is who my grandmother has been her entire life and that her “nice” side is just an act. I can’t seem to connect those dots for whatever reason. Though I will admit that my grandmother can get a bit dramatic and relishes it even more when she has an audience. But, my mother and I did have two very different experiences with my grandmother and saw two distinctly different sides. I don’t begrudge my mother’s feelings or resentment toward my grandmother. And the fact that despite those feelings my mother is still taking phenomenal care of my grandmother speaks volumes to her character and capacity to love. I think we all have a hurtful or malicious side. No one is always purely good or always purely evil. And even with the best of intentions, due to limited information, we can do pretty hurtful things even to the ones we love the most. I believe we are all shades of gray for sure and we show different sides of our personality to different people at different times. But who is my grandmother at her core? Is it too late to find out?
Well, I was cleaning out our closest when I came across an old binder with a few of my grandmother’s important documents. In the mix of the paperwork was an old faded white envelope cut in half with something written on it in Spanish. The message was short and sweet. My grandmother, preparing for her inevitable death, left one final note goodbye for her daughter, my mother, years before dementia robbed my grandmother of her memory. In the note, my grandmother asks that she be cremated with her ashes poured out into the ocean. My grandmother then writes that she loves my mother and she will be watching over my mother, my brother and me when she is in heaven. Just my typing these words down makes me want to cry. The note is so simple and pure. Preparing for one’s death is probably something so traumatic that I don’t know how even I would handle it. My grandmother couldn’t bring herself to write out in a more formal and structured way and instead quickly wrote it down on an envelope, tucked it away and forgot about it. That was her last goodbye. My grandmother’s last and possibly only love note to her daughter. It’s not filled with affection. It’s not filled with fancy words or drawn out sentences. My grandmother’s note was short and sweet. And if she had no affection for her daughter, my grandmother could have ended the note with her asking to be cremated and her ashes poured out into the ocean. Instead, she took that moment to tell her daughter that she loved her just one more time. That’s an amazingly beautiful thing and something that I can’t imagine an evil/hurtful/malicious person would do. My grandmother always expected and hoped she would die naturally in her sleep. It never even dawned on her that dementia was a possibility and that her mind would deteriorate before her body.
My grandmother is not dead. She is 91 years old now but, she doesn’t remember who I am, who her daughter is, that she has a grandson, nor does she even remember her own age or birthday. When shown a picture, my grandmother cannot even remember her own mother. So I doubt she remembers writing that note. But thank God she did. Thank goodness my grandmother, a woman with nothing more than a 6th grade education from Puerto Rico over 80 years ago, had the love in her heart and the foresight to write that note. How would we know for sure how much she loved her daughter given how badly her dementia has progressed? Hopefully it gives my mother one last chance to see a different side of her mother when she reflects on her life growing up. Hopefully that gives my mother some perspective as she cares for her mother now and allows that note to soften her heart just a little bit more.
That note makes me think about my life. Does everyone who I know and love truly know how much I love them? Is it possible for someone I care about to think back and misinterpret our relationship and see me as a hurtful person? Should I start leaving my last goodbye note to ensure that I have one more chance to make sure my family knows how much I care? I used to leave little love notes for my husband whenever either of us was traveling without the other. I would leave them in the fridge, under a pillow, in his luggage, etc. But I don’t do that with everyone and I certainly do not actually say the words “I love you” to anyone other than my husband. How will I make sure everyone knows how much I care? I don’t know.
How do you make sure your loved ones know how much you care?