Dinner with Strangers

A few weeks ago I took some of my free time and visited my paternal grandmother, GT. She’s very dear to me and we have had an immensely close relationship for many years. We talked for hours, addressing the apparent quiet and emptiness with missing my Grandpa, and then we turned to my maternal grandparents among the many tales. I had always spoken of them as a matter of fact, we were not as close, not like my relationship with GT and Grandpa. I explained to GT their failing health, grandma’s dementia, my grandfather’s stoke and the domino effect of adverse health reactions each began to experience. We circled back to grandma’s dementia, GT mentioned her experience with a great aunt who suffered the same which she referred to a Glen Campbell song so fitting to dementia and Alzheimer’s, I’m Not Gonna Miss You. This Thanksgiving was spent with my maternal grandparents and I was hit with the reality that it was a dinner with strangers.

For months mom and I spoke of her parents failing health. As a nurse, mom was also very matter of fact in her conversations explaining the dementia. Stories of struggle, concern, upset and even humor. We never really addressed the emotional side of her parents ills and ails. I wanted my mom to be free to open up when she was ready, I didn’t want to pry her wound even wider.

My natural reaction to speak of them so matter of fact was due to reduced interaction. I had not seen them in years. The gravity of their circumstances was not in my forefront. Raising three kids, working full time and living on opposite ends of town made frequent visits rather difficult. Mom has watched them in their decline for the past several years as she cared for them in small ways; checking in on them, keeping them company and more recently their transition in long-term care.

My last recalled memory was just a few years ago, they were still active, still in the moment, still my grandparents. Such a surprise to see both of them, feeble, frail, lost in the present.

Maintaining my stoic nature for my mom I invited both of them into my home. Fighting tears and sadness of the little girl remembering the elders I love so dear, holidays past, stories and hugs. I wasn’t quite sure what to say or do or how to interact with them. The time that had passed while only a small handful of years felt like an eternity. A lifetime suddenly felt altered, family that became strangers, so familiar yet so very distant.

I watched my mother struggle to keep them both happy and comfortable. My grandfather’s stroke some years ago left him with limited sight, balance, and hearing. His presence in my home was causing him a sensory overload, combined with his overwhelming pride and anger for his circumstance, he was eager to return home. My grandmother was in a bliss of enjoying children and conversation with good people, albeit total strangers, she carried on and on of her enjoyment. Forgetting the names she just learned and why she was somewhere other than her home.

My children were a picture of perfection, empathizing with their great grandparents and ever so helpful to their limitations and disabilities. I could not be more proud as a parent to watch them as the epitome of love and kindness. These elders were as strangers to them as well.

The end of the dinner and day was drawing near, the time had come for my mom to take my grandparents home. As mom was assisting my grandfather to the car all I could do was watch. A figure of a man that once was. The big bellowing man full of heart and strength, towering at over six feet tall, reduced to fragility and his voice sullen, quiet, hidden. His anger, rage and pride became him, his circumstance and was swallowing him whole; willing himself to not be present in this life. I could hear his pain, I could feel the last bit of warmth, of his love, escape in his words and hug when I thanked him for coming. The grip of his handshake as he wouldn’t let go of The Chad; my heart spoke that this was a farewell.

Grandma was still inside, she was finishing in the restroom, prior to returning home. Waiting patiently to see if she would call for assistance, she seemed alright. So I acted as a helicopter care giver, swirling around waiting for her to emerge. I prepared her walker for her journey down the driveway to the car. Instead, G stepped up and walked down the hall with her walker. Hurriedly he wanted to ensure his timing was right that she could step down the hall independently, free from my embrace. My heart swelled with pride in his generosity, innocence and love. She beamed as she exited the restroom. Her chariot awaited and G was her prince.

I watched her glow. She swooned over his beauty and endearing nature, so compassionate, so polite. As I stepped into a bedroom from her path down my hallway she paused briefly and looked me square in the face and said, “He’s so polite. Such a wonderful boy. So nice. So good looking.”

A little girl emerged from within as I turned and crumpled into tears. Not acting quick enough, mom caught me, then I began fighting to remain stoic. She begged me to stop, I wept quietly into her shoulder. I told her I had no expectations and yet I was so unprepared for the scene I had just experienced. A woman who has known me my entire life was a complete stranger, looking me square in the eyes I saw the paradox.

She entered the car and we began to finish our goodbyes. My children bidding them goodbye only to be questioned who the sweet children were that were fawning over her and his anger consuming him to tears as well as this was his hello and farewell to them. We waved goodbye, returning to the house I entered our open garage. Toppling into an emotional heap of sadness, some regret and grief. Exhausted from an ordeal of cooking and events I was unprepared to encounter. Collecting my wits I returned to our other guests, watching moms car drive away, years of memories and love began to feel more distant, so final.

Mom and I talked some more that night when she returned from taking my elders home. Selfishly I was hopeful grandma remembered me, I wanted her to remember me. We laughed at her telling her audience of the wonderful meal, the grace of the company she experienced, how nice my home was, how comfortable she felt in my home, to speak only minutes later asking when she would be going to dinner. Our mood quickly turned somber as we discussed fulfilling and honoring my grandfathers wish, his desire to no longer be part of our world, this life. Sadness and grief began to come in small waves, I fought it back, I could see my mom was spent and I couldn’t bear witness to anymore pain let alone have her share in mine.

Briefly I thought back to how I was having dinner with these strangers. I paused in reflection, thinking of our Thanksgiving Eve service at church. Our big idea in the sermon was making people the centerpiece for Thanksgiving. Suddenly I was at ease at this thought. Hugging my mom, thanking her for bringing my grandparents despite her thoughts and feelings to the contrary, we passed the thought amongst each other that this might be their last Thanksgiving. We embraced through more tears, I couldn’t stop thanking her. My thanksgiving was both a holiday and a state of being. My grandparents were a part of our centerpiece, I was thankful to have spent this time with them, despite how short. I was able to express my love to them through words and hospitality. I was also able to say, what may be a final goodbye; though bittersweet I was at peace to have shared this final holiday.


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