The following is a (slightly edited) essay I wrote in ~2009 for Lutheran Social Services to use for promotion and publication for their in-home elder care programs.
It was a sunny, Saturday afternoon and I sat on my grandmother’s couch, paging through her old photo albums. I had spent a good half hour giggling over horrible hairstyles and fashion faux pas committed by my family. My father was several pounds lighter, my mother had huge glasses and several aunts and uncles still had young, smooth baby faces! I laughed at them all, knowing full well that someday, my children would be thinking the same judgmental things about me. For now, though, I was going to fully enjoy my rights as a member of the youngest generation. Then I turned to photos even farther back in time. Before me lay a small, black-and-white picture taken on a barren and sparse front lawn. The dark-haired woman in the picture bore little resemblance to the frail one sitting next to me. My great-grandmother was now 91 years old. Time had deepened the furrows in her face and stolen most of her sight and hearing. Her gray hair—mussed in the back, where she’d been laying her head against the Lay-Z-Boy all day— was short, chopped off near her skull. She didn’t move much anymore, her mobility being the latest freedom she’d been forced to surrender.
I had always loved my great-grandma. Her wit and humor I adored and admired. It gave her an easy, confident ability to communicate with people, from her contemporaries to her middle-aged grandchildren (who dared complain about their infirmities!) down to the youngest of her great-grandchildren. I enjoyed everything about her. Great-grandma was a Kentucky-native, complete with the darling accent and a vocabulary littered with “ya’ll“s. I was born hugging the Canadian border and have never moved from that location. Our time zones were probably the only thing our homes had in common. But through great-grandma, I learned about another culture. Through her, I was introduced to new foods, new phrases, new daily habits and new clothing styles.
But Great-grandma was no longer the witty, southern woman of my childhood. Age had forced her to surrender much of what made up her daily life. Slowly, I watched her world decline into the ability to visit with people, smoke cigarettes and watch movies. Eventually, even those skills left her and her days were spent rocking in a recliner and drinking coffee. I became so accustomed to this new grandma, the one whose life had turned into a shadow of existence, that my naïve and youthful imagination stopped envisioning her any other way. I forgot about the woman who cooked fried green tomatoes (and did not appear offended when my young self wrinkled my nose and spit them out). I forgot about the woman who gave me crocheting lessons (but didn’t hold it against me when, after very little effort, I grew frustrated and quit trying).
Then my eyes hit that picture of her. In the image, she isn’t alone, but with her husband. The young couple sit on the grass. A tall, lanky man, he has one arm slung over her shoulder, which seems to shelter my slender grandma as she rests seated on the ground, pressed into his chest. You can’t see her face, because the back of his head blocks the view as they share a kiss. It’s sweet. Innocent. Simple.
Kissing is usually stereotyped in a serious light: passionate, deep, erotic. Despite those truths, when I gaze at the picture of my great-grandparents, none of those characteristics come to mind. I can’t see their expressions, but I imagine their faces convey something else entirely: happiness. My great-grandma didn’t converse and joke around much the last year of her life. Though her sarcastic wit never completely abandoned her, it did decline and I saw it far less. But I imagine that in the picture, her expression is the one I remember from my childhood. The smart smile, the glimmer in her eye…it must be there, because that’s who she was. Not the frail form who croaked out old hymns about dying (and would sing off-key for days without stopping) but the woman who embodied strength in her ability to approach any situation with wry humor and a quip remark.
Anyone who has cared for elderly family members knows the challenge it can be. It requires long days, much sacrifice, and great mental and physical effort. It means heartbreak when you watch someone you love decline in health, awkward situations when you are forced to make unpopular decisions, and anxiety when you dwell on the future. But the future is not why people make the sacrifice; they do it for the past. The memories we share of our loved one is what makes staying close in those final days so important. It is not for who they have become that we sacrifice, but for the person they once were.
(C) Emily Enger