I come from a long line of hardworking, show no emotion, self-sufficient people. Growing up, I rarely heard people in my family say, “I love you.” We’re the kind of people made uncomfortable by expressions of love.
Recently, I took my preteen daughter and fourteen-year-old son to visit their great grandma in the nursing home and on the drive there I shared stories about her with the kids. I told them how Great Grandma was incredibly bright but grew up in a time and place where women, especially women from rural Tennessee, had few opportunities.
I shared how, because of her southern drawl, many in upstate New York assumed Great Grandma wasn’t intelligent, and that she relished being underestimated by them. She didn’t ask for help and she didn’t complain because she was a “grin and bear it” type of person, and she did everything — from household chores and baking pies to managing the books for their great grandpa’s business — faster and better than everyone else to prove how smart and capable she was.
Great Grandma was kind and generous, but I told my kids she could be competitive, too. For instance, when I was a kid, she never let me win at cards. And when she taught me to play basketball, she fouled me relentlessly with her sharp elbows as I grew stronger and more difficult to defend.
The Great Grandma I described, the one from my memories, is a stranger to my kids. To them, she’s a small, white-haired woman with dementia who eats only chicken noodle soup and can still kick their butts at Scrabble but needs to be reminded of their names and to turn on her hearing aids. We’re all fond of the current version of Great Grandma, but visiting her in a nursing home feels foreign to me. She’s weak and dependent, and I’m confounded by the situation because she’s no longer like the version of her that I know.
On the day of our visit, Great Grandma expected company, so she opened her door as soon as we knocked, greeting us with a big smile, a giggle and a shrug of the shoulders, telling us “Come in,” even if she wasn’t certain who we were.
She began our visit by showing us pictures of crocheted blankets she gifted to others, and proudly showed us a navy and silver striped blanket she was working on now. We probably folded and unfolded that navy and silver blanket five times, each time acting as if we were seeing it anew and impressed by Great Grandma’s craftsmanship.
After that, we took Great Grandma out of the facility for a lunch of chicken noodle soup. My daughter skipped down the carpeted hall heading toward the exit, impressing the elderly ladies gathered in the entryway with her energy.
My son, meanwhile, stayed behind with Great Grandma, standing next to her as she padded along behind her rolling walker. Head bent in concentration, he carefully placed one foot in scuffed-up Nikes after another alongside her orthotic sandals, and hovered his hand two to three inches behind her back, just below her shoulder blades, ready to catch her should she fall.
At the car he helped her into the front seat, asking gently, “Are you in?” Then he shut the door and carried her stroller to the trunk of the car. When we returned from lunch, perhaps inspired by her brother’s attentiveness and in a great display of teamwork that seems impossible when they are tasked with walking the dog, my daughter offered to get Great Grandma’s walker when my son volunteered to help Great Grandma out.
Back in Great Grandma’s room, the kids settled into her love seat as she offered them candy from a stash impressive enough to feed trick or treaters. My son picked round gum balls covered in Nerds, and it turns out that even as a teenager whose diet consists primarily of sugar and processed meats, the candies were too sweet for him. He carefully spat them into his loosely held fist and threw them away when Great Grandma wasn’t looking. Three times, she asked what grade he was in, and he told her, “I’m in eighth grade,” without reminding her she had already asked before. He laughed each time she joked about how quickly he was growing while she was shrinking as if hearing this comparison for the first time. And when she brought out the blue and silver blanket again, he helped her fold it, saying, “I really like the colors you picked.”
Unlike me, my son was unintimidated by Great Grandma. He was unphased by her memory loss. Unafraid of her frailty. Happy to slow down for her. Unbothered by having to repeat himself. He talked to her about her Betty Boop collection, her photo albums and the nativity scene she displayed year-round. He would have been fine with her had I not been there. I’m not sure I would have been fine there without him tagging along.
When we said goodbye to Great Grandma, both of my kids hugged her without prompting from me. They told her, “Love you,” which caught me off guard.
We say “I love you” at home often — before bed, at school dropoff, after apologizing for an irrational outburst – but in Great Grandma’s room the words floated in the air, brand new. She didn’t say or hear those words often. I wasn’t sure how they would be received.
To my surprise, Great Grandma was excited to receive love. Dementia stripped her of what once made such expressions something to be embarrassed by. She squeezed each kid. She told them she loved them. Then it was my turn. I hesitated. My arms were still carrying the emotional baggage of my stoic upbringing. But then, because of the examples set by my son and my daughter, I decided to let go of that baggage. And when Great Grandma hugged me, I finally told her, “I love you, too.”