I was around 12 and she was in her 70s when my family noticed her short-term memory was failing. She would consistently forget where she left her purse, the car keys, or if she added salt to the neck bones. We figured it was a symptom of advanced age. She had my grandfather, who was still operating on all cylinders, so we didn’t worry so much about her. Years later, her doctor informed my mother that we’d missed the early stages of Alzheimer’s, not that there was much we could do about it anyway.
In my mid 20s, I sat in the second row next to my grandmother at my grandfather’s funeral, directly in front of the casket. She couldn’t remember that my grandfather was gone and didn’t recognize “that man,” as she put it, “who’s laying up there.” So there we sat in a surreal moment with her oblivious that the stranger laid out for his Homegoing under a purple drape not five feet in front of her was her husband of six-plus decades. I’d decided not to tell her who he was anymore, but changed my mind. This was the last time she’d see her husband, after all.
Me: You know who that is up there?
Her: (She looked at me blankly.) It’s a minister. See the purple drape?
Duh… I had no clue that’s what it meant, but I digress.
Me: It’s your husband.
Her: (She didn’t miss a beat.) Well, then I should pay my respects.
I escorted her out of the pew and up to the casket. She stood in front of the body, staring, and I figured she’d forgotten again in the two minutes or so it took us to get up there. But then she reached into the casket, I recoiled in horror, and she patted the Bible wedged between my grandfather’s cold, dead hands.
“We had good times didn’t we,” she said to the body. “Hmmm.” She paused in a seeming moment of reflection, then looked up at me, a sign to take her back to her seat. As soon as we settled into the pew, she leaned over to me. “Honey,” she asked, calling me by my mother’s nickname. “Who was that man up there?” I shook my head and told her I didn’t know.
That’s always haunted me a bit—the idea of growing old and not remembering like Henry, like my grandmother. When I’m laying in the bed, staring at the ceiling I can’t see in the 4 AM darkness, worrying about possibilities, devising back up plans, and thinking about legacy, I wonder what that undefined “it” is all worth, if anything. You accomplish whatever you do, travel wherever you go, garner whatever accolades “they” read at your retirement party, but how much does it all matter if, in the end, you can’t recall it unless it’s a fleeting moment of clarity?
I think about that, then force myself not to. If you know how the game ends, or even worse, can’t remember how it was played, it kinda kills your motivation to participate in the first place.
Demetria L. Lucas is the author of “A Belle in Brooklyn: The Go-to Girl for Advice on Living Your Best Single Life” (Atria), in stores now. Follow her on Twitter @abelleinbk