I recently visited my grandmother who has late stage Alzheimer’s. She can still recognize the people she’s known the best, but she has trouble now talking in actual words. She talks quite a bit. But not with many real words, so it comes out as gibberish. At first, and when I could see that she was physically and mentally comfortable, it was really funny. She’d say things like, “So congow minneesh up the river. And huck in the pots.” But she said it with such sincerity and earnestness and right to you! You had to respond. And so I ended up having a “conversation” with her.
She’d say, “When momma took humperdim to upcommup at hifshister, ben berry go.” And she’d have this expression of seriousness and fear on her face. Just the plain emotion. No embarrassment or shame or attempt to hide her vulnerability. And there was nothing to do but say, “That sounds scary.” And sometimes, if you got the emotion right, or maybe not, maybe just randomly, she’d say, “Ya, it was.”
I have never felt such purity of love pouring out of me, just gazing at her old, withered, imperfect face. I knew this person, and I knew how tough and stoic she was. I knew her to be quick-witted and clever, and sometimes cutting with her judgments. She was loving, for sure, but she was a person with an ego and a personality and opinions and the hutzpah to let you know what they were. And now, she was… simply beautiful.
She still has her personality. When I walked into her room at the nursing home for the first time, I said, “So show me around!” and she said, “Turn your head!” Her wit shines through the knots and fuzziness in her mind now sometimes, like a sun ray cutting through the clouds.
But she doesn’t have the defenses, the ego, the pride, the fear of being seen as she is. That self-consciousness just dissolved. And so she is purer, and therefore to me, even more beautiful than ever.
I’m writing about this because it was such a moving, clear reminder of the utter beauty of our basic humanity and how we can still connect with that despite losing our brains. She can’t make sense in words, but it doesn’t matter. We can still connect at a much deeper level.
At one point in our visit, she looked at me in silence for a minute, and said, “You look happy.” And I started to tear up. “I am happy, grandma, because I’m with you.” She was seeing herself – her purity, her vulnerability, and its answer – love, compassion, joy – reflected in my eyes.
Why can’t we see each other that way? We all walk around with such armor. We have such defenses, so afraid of being seen, really seen. Do we think others will see ugliness? Or pettiness? Or stupidity? My grandmother wasn’t perfect. But it doesn’t matter. She wasn’t and isn’t perfect. And yet, she is. You are too.