My grandma is extraordinary, in many ways. The most obvious is that she’s 102 years old. She gets around with only the help of a cane, and just moved into a care facility last year. The insidious creep of dementia has now stolen much of her short-term memory capacity, but she retains her sense of humour and good spirits. Her hearing is awful even with her hearing aids, but she just laughs it off.
Grandma and I were always close. The city where she lived was an hour away from where I grew up, and we regularly spent weekends at Grandma’s. Even after I moved to a city four hours away, I was still a regulator visit at Grandma’s. We laughed a lot and had tons of fun.
Three years ago, I had a relapse of my depression. My first instinct was to hide from the world that was hurting me. I stopped talking to my family, and this lasted for months. Grandma left a few voicemails in which she sounded quite distressed, and my reaction was to feel guilty and pull even further away. The longer I avoided, the worse the guilt grew. Finally, after about a year of disappearing, I reached out to Grandma again.
Things had changed, though. The minor memory loss she’d been experiencing for some time had progressed. While the decline had happened over a year, for me it was an abrupt change. She would tell the same stories over and over again, sometimes only minutes apart. My depression was still very much present, but I felt like I needed to put on the persona of my normally perky self when I was with her. It was exhausting.
Grandma knew about my illness at one point in time. At least, she knew that I was in hospital, but growing up on a farm in the middle of nowhere in the 1920s really hadn’t given her any sort of frame of reference to truly understand what mental illness was, and it wasn’t something that she’d been exposed to (or at least aware of) in her adult life. Regardless, she now has no idea that I have a mental illness, and even if I were to tell her, she’d probably forget a few minutes later. It mostly bothers me when she asks about work, since I’m not able to work very much due to my illness. Because she forgets she’s already asked the question, she asks it again, and again, and agin.
Despite the dementia, she’s doing remarkably well for 102 years young. While there’s nothing that imminently threatens her life, the clear reality is that she doesn’t have that much time left. Yet I don’t visit as often as I could, because it’s draining. I love her, but the visits suck out everything I have to give. Putting on the cheerful mask takes every last bit of energy, yet I feel like there’s no alternative when she wouldn’t be able to understand who that mask-free person was.
Inevitably she will die, if not this year, then the next year, or perhaps not until the year after that. The guilt I feel now will intensify, along with the sense that I didn’t do as much as I could have. The sense that for all I love her, it wasn’t enough.
Yet I will go on. I will force myself to keep moving, at the same time as the depression holds me back. I will be a self that loves less deeply than I used to, but it’s all the self I have left.
This weekend I will visit her, and I will play the role of my old self as best I can. That much I can do for her.