She isn't quite the same person - my second grandmother to have Alzheimer's . . . my third grandparent to have Alzheimer's.
I have been fortunate to experience a few very clear, sweet moments of connection with my grandmothers even in the midst of this particular disease.
My paternal grandmother once spoke a strikingly appropriate prayer over a family gathering and ten minutes later told me to be careful of the stems on the grapes sitting on my plate because they might "bother the queen." This same grandmother was in a hospital bed in a nursing home some time later, having suffered a big fall. It had been over a year since she'd remembered my name, but as I sat next to her bed on my last visit with her she looked right in my eyes and said, "I love you" just the way I remember her saying it to me as a child.
My maternal grandmother still knows who I am most of the time. I live a few hours away and so I only see her once every month or two. This year she's been able to hold my new baby boy, and most recently I got to sit right next to her while she hummed old Christmas tunes and sang what words came into her head.
My dad's mom liked to hear me sing "In the Garden." It made her happy. When I was a kid and would sing it for little things at church it probably made her proud.
When my sister and I were kids our mom's parents would sing us silly songs and old popular tunes - "Ka-ka-ka- Katie!" and "Three Little Fishes." This Christmas my sister and I sang some Christmas songs for them and when our time was running out we said it was time to finish up. Our grandfather announced that he wanted to have "Two more!" and so we asked our grandmother what she wanted to hear.
"What song do you want to hear?"
Asking questions to somebody with Alzheimer's is a risky thing. You can't predict what the answer will be or if they'll know exactly what you mean by asking them in the first place.
But our Grandma answered with a very strong singing voice, "O Come all ye faithful! Joyful and triumphant!" We knew exactly what she wanted to hear.
It's one of the Advent candles we light - hope.
I have to be honest - religion doesn't hold a lot of weight for me in terms of future rewards. I'm most definitely a follower of Jesus Christ, but the thought of a mansion and streets paved in gold doesn't give me a whole lot of comfort here in this life. Never has. I know a lot of folks who feel very strongly that much of the value in religion comes from that sort of a promise. Don't misunderstand me - I do think something about eternity . . . I just don't think about it in a tangible way.
I guess the thing about Life Eternal and World Without End that strikes me in a hopeful way is the sense of ongoingness it has. Because I can see it. I can perceive it even though it's out of my reach . . . and it's very clear that even though it has to be a mystery, it also has to be a reality - there is something about a human being that is ongoing and not part of the body.
I've seen it in the eyes of the grieving who know already that it's true.
I've heard it in the words of people whose brains have stopped obeying the rest of the body . . . and yet there's something wise and all-accepting from their speech every so often.
There's a great bit of song and poetry I heard in a modern liturgical setting recently - the poet said something about the lack of an end, saying that we would all "hum like the souls of the old do."
I can't explain it and do it justice. Take three minutes and be still and listen to this. Do yourself a favor.
Before we'd begun singing for our grandparents I'd been listening to my Grandma - she hums all the time now. It's a constant, low, comfort sound. My baby son hums like that when he is trying to fall asleep.
"This is not the end! This is not the end! This is not the end!"
I will go to sleep here. And I will wake up to More.
I will not understand it.
I cannot predict it.
But there will be More.
She knows. They all know. There's a great "More" waiting that is not totally separate from what we are today. There is a beautiful Other quality wrapped up in it, but it's part of the gift that our life has been from conception to whatever comes after.
A few years ago, during this same season, I sat in a hospital room by a retired Chemist who was saying goodbye to her dying husband, also a Chemist. She said, "Oh my dear, you have a few more chemical reactions happening in your mind, still. That's a miracle, isn't it?" and we hummed songs and held human hands - all of us just spirits wrapped up in miraculous, scientific, chemical reactions.
On Christmas Eve I sat by my sister and listened to a preacher usher us into the birth celebration of Jesus. And this preacher called Jesus "the God-Man." The one who knows the mystery, but who lived in a state of Advent like the rest of us - waiting for arrival.
Listen to the very old and the very young - they remember where they've come from . . . and they know they'll return to it. This is not the end.