Most days, he sat in a chair staring into space, his brain unable to make the connections of laughter and eye contact and meaning that it once had. His unshaven chin, hollow cheeks, and wild hair echoed dimly of the lively man I’d known as my grandfather. My grandma, a former hair dresser, faithfully brought her comb to try and tame his wild do, but he didn’t like it much.
Actually, he didn’t like anything much those days. The dementia had stolen him from us one-slow-day-at-a-time, and replaced his jolly warmth with violent reactions and confused arguments. It was like having a three-year-old in the family all over again.
But there were moments of clarity. He knew my grandmother most often. His sweetheart since fifth grade, he used to ride his pony down the railroad tracks to visit her, so his memory of her stretched back nearly his entire life. As his disease worsened, it was dodgy if he knew any of the rest of us.
One day, I helped him decorate a pot in which to plant a flower. The nursing home had sticker-letters and decorations to put on the pots, but most of the residents were too busy introducing themselves to each other repeatedly to do anything as focused as this. So I put the letters on the plastic little pot for my grandpa.
“J-O-H-N,” I read to him, trying to have some semblance of conversation. “See grandpa? I made this is for you.”
He looked at me blankly, “John? Who’s John?” then turned to the lady in the wheelchair next to him and asked, “Are you John?”
“I’m Helen,” she took his hand. “So very nice to meet you. What’s your name?”
The dialog then repeated itself like a skipping record for the next 10 minutes while I quietly added some flower stickers to the pot.
This was no longer the J-O-H-N I knew.
From my childhood, I remember most his endless puttering. Back-and-forth, back-and-forth, I watched him wander between his house next door and the barn, sometimes on foot, sometimes the lawn mower. I’d hear him bark at the dogs to move out of the way, or stick his head in our house to bellow, “Anybody home?”
He was a paradox of the kind that many from his generation are. When we remember him, we’re just as likely to use the words gnarly and cantankerous as kind and gentle. My ever-sweet grandma would sometimes scold him to not swear in front of the grandchildren, and there were a few times when I remember hiding because I’d made him spittin’ mad. Yet his brief moments of anger never overshadowed the fact that he loved his family. He took us to Disney World more times than I can count just because he loved to see children happy. He bought a big orange motorhome with bunkbeds and drove us all over to camp at state parks.
The child of Swedish immigrants, my Grandpa John grew up on a farm in a hardworking family, and lived out his childhood with a mother who he claimed was the ‘best woman he ever knew’ for loving her children sacrificially and surviving his much-less-than-kind father. He served in the war, worked the family farm, and did a bazillion other odd jobs. Though he had the intellectual ability, he never went to college because the money wasn’t there and the farm was.
He devoured the daily newspaper and had all sorts of opinions about its stories. While some of his opinions were a bit hot-headed, others were quite well-informed. I loved picking his brain to hear how a whole lifetime of wisdom processed the modern world. (As his dementia worsened, his opinions didn’t really lessen, they just made less sense and contained quite a few more curse words which, at times, was equally entertaining.)
One of the things I appreciated most about my grandfather was how he’d accepted and loved my husband. Much unlike many from his generation and background, it was not a problem for him that his granddaughter loved a man with brown skin. One day, I’d asked my grandpa what he thought of my then fiance. “Me?!?” he responded in surprise. “Who cares what I think? You’re the one who’s gotta live with him.”
That was the extent of his opinion. In his typical fashion, he showed my future husband his acceptance with a nickname, an arm around his shoulder, a half-joking reprimand to stand up straighter, and an ever present handshake and hug.
His was far from a perfect life, scarred with so many of the stories common to his generation, but it was a good life, one that, when all was said and done, he told honestly and well to his family.
In the very last days of his life, my husband and I visited him in the nursing home. As usual, there was little conversation, no eye contact. The stubborn Swedish farmer who’d fought off dementia for ten long years had nearly quit eating, and the doctors said he would not last much longer. We said everything we could think to say, suspecting it would be our last time together.
When our words ran out, we stood to leave, and my mom asked my husband to pray. If you knew my husband, you’d know how the rich prayer voice of his preacher family lineage leaks out when he speaks to God, capturing ears and blocking out the noise of the world around. He prayed a simple, grateful prayer and the Spirit filled our room. Tears dripped off all of our noses when he closed with a quiet and sweet ‘amen’. So be it.
At that very moment, my grandfather opened his clear blue eyes, looked my husband straight in his deep brown eyes, and responded with long-ago lost words, “Thank you,” he mumbled plain as day, and then squeezed my husband’s hand tight before his mind slipped away from us again.
It was then that I realized what my grandpa knew. After a life filled to the brim with both the good and the hard, the messy and beautiful, the broken and the healed, his dying days told us this:
When memories fall away, brains slow, muscles wither, the words that remain known to the heart are simply
His life spoke for itself that they are the only words we really need.