Thursday, May 22, 2014

He's Not Gone {an essay about dementia}

If you've ever met my Grandfather, it's likely you walked away with a smile on your face and slightly winded from one of his famous bear hugs. This man, with booming voice, strong arms, and a kind heart always seems to leave an impression wherever he goes. As a young child in a small town, I often felt like I was the Granddaughter of some sort of legend or celebrity. Many times people I came across would recognize our shared last name and stop to recount a story of how he had touched their lives.

My Grandfather, this hero of mine, is suffering from dementia. Often he is lost and I know he doesn't recognize me during most of our encounters.

Mostly our family is able to handle this devastating disease in a lighthearted way. He makes that easy on us. Even when he doesn't know who you are, he treats you with affection and an open heart, offering a hug and a hearty laugh, just as he always has. It's who he is to the very core and I am thankful.

But, other times that thought that he is gone hits me hard and deep. The real him. I'm afraid I won't know him in the same way again, expect in tiny fragments on the good days. In those moments I feel a sadness that is not unlike mourning his actual death. I recognize the inability to express my love to someone who can't even remember it and I wish I would have known how quickly his mind was going to change. I'm so grateful for the closeness we shared and for the cherished stack of cards and letters from him that I will always keep.

It helps to realize that although a part of him will never be the same, maybe he's not really gone. I like to think that in his mind he is reliving the best parts of his life. The timeline may be jumbled, but it's there in all of its glory. Maybe when he sits there in his easy chair he is really back in his childhood, lost in the world of dusty summers on the farm. Or maybe he is the young pastor again with three little children and his whole life ahead of him.

When I feel sad I try to remember how richly he has lived his life, how many people he has touched, and I know he's not really gone. Behind this tragedy is the story of the tenacity of the family he has built and the faith we all cling to. His character, his kindness, his faith and legacy are living on for us, and even for him, despite the layers of confusion. Those are the things that will live on long after he really is gone. Those are the things I will always keep.

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