When They’re Not Who You Remembered


Remember Courtney Grandmother

After a thousand mile road trip, I finally asked my sister the question I wasn’t sure I wanted the answer to, “Do you think she’ll remember who I am?” I held my breath, anticipating her response. She pulled into the parking lot of the Memory Care Facility our grandmother now called home, found a parking spot, and turned off the car. She looked at me and lovingly said, “I honestly don’t know.” 

I had no idea what I was expecting. I hadn’t seen my grandma in over two years, since we PCSed to Germany. In that time, COVID hit, my grandpa had died, my grandma’s memory worsened, and my mom and aunts decided to move my grandma to an Alzheimer’s facility near my cousins in Las Vegas. 

For the past twenty years, I talked to my grandma weekly. She loved sharing her adventures of playing golf, serving on the local board of some organization, winning games of Bridge, and shopping with her friends in the nearby town. She was so vibrant. So full of life. She would eagerly ask about the classes I was taking in college, how marriage/parenting/life changes were going. She would send me a card for my birthday every year. 

But then, I would witness the times her light began to fade. “Have you seen my glasses? I can’t find my keys.” This would eventually become, “Did I take my medicine today? I don’t remember why I pulled this roast out.” Expired milk and meat began to take up space in her fridge. Her body began to shrink from lack of nutrition and sustenance. My stubborn grandpa refused to hire in-home help and promised to keep an eye on her. 

What could I do from 6,000 miles away? Other than watch a woman I love and admire slowly waste away. Slowly decline by forgetting my children’s names and faces and eventually my own. Sometimes, it feels like I’m watching my family from afar. The distance from family can feel more like a chasm. That is something that never gets easier the longer I live this military life.

So, here I sat. Faced with the unknown of what I was to walk into. My sister and I checked in at the front desk and waited to be buzzed into her wing. I took a deep breath in through my mask and prayed for strength. As I began to walk down the hall, I noticed a familiar elderly woman sitting cross-legged watching television by herself. I smiled and tried to meet her eyes. “Hey, Grams!” I exclaimed. She turned to look at me. “Oh, hi,” she said politely. She stared at my sister and I, trying to place us. I lowered my mask and bent down to meet her at eye level. “Grams! I’m so glad to see you,” I declared and gave her a hug. “What are you doing here?” she asked us. “I came to see you! I flew all the way from Germany just to see you, Grams.” We continued with the conversation. She didn’t say my name and even introduced me as her daughter at one point. Eventually, I think she remembered that I was one of her granddaughters. She asked some of the same questions and repeated several stories. And that was ok. I was happy to listen to her tell me about two people who got in trouble for canoodling on the couch. “They’re not married to each other. They have a wife and a husband who don’t live here.” Scandalous.

As our visit wrapped up, I bent down to talk to my Grams a little more seriously. She rocked back and forth in her rocking chair. “Grams,” I said, holding back tears. “I don’t know when I’ll get to see you next. I have to go back to Germany soon. But I want you to know that I love you and I am so, so thankful for you. And I want you to know that you’re not alone, ok.” She took my hand and with tears in her eyes said, “I love you too. I don’t want to be a burden on anyone.” I clasped my other hand on hers and told her, “You’re not. I’m so sorry if you feel that way. We love you so much.” 

I wish I could say she believed me. I don’t know if she did. I just know that I did come and visit her the next day, on our way out of town. I found her sitting at a table, alone, staring out a window. I thought about not disturbing her. Letting her drift into daydreams. To times where she came and went and didn’t have to live behind a locked door. To times where she was watching the Seattle Mariners play with the man she grew old with for 65 years. 

But I didn’t. I pulled up a chair and said, “Hey, Grams!” We sat and talked, mostly about everything we had discussed the day before. This time we were surrounded by several of the residents, many who needed assistance with eating and walking. After a while, I told her I had to go and hugged her one more time. She thanked me for coming to see her. As I was walking away, I turned to catch a glimpse of her one more time. She had returned to staring out the window. 

I don’t know if she remembers me visiting her. I don’t know if she even knew who I was most of the time I was with her. I do know that that is not the woman I remembered. The woman who played on a softball team well into her fifties. The woman who went back to get a Masters degree while working full-time and raising four kids in the 1980s. The woman who always argued with my dad about being too overprotective with me. 

I like to think she will continue to live on. In me. In my kids. And I am so grateful that I get to remember her for the woman she was, even if only a small part of her is still left on this earth with us. 

(Note: I cried writing this article. Apparently, I hadn’t dealt with my visit with Grams sufficiently. If there is someone you love who is suffering from a physical or mental disease that has changed how you remember them, I want to encourage you to write your own story too. It’s incredibly therapeutic and healing. It won’t change their condition, but it will remind you of why you love and care for them so.)