I walked into the nursing home to visit a home-bound parishioner. The family asked if I’d go sit with her and offer last rites; hospice had visited. No one could meet me, so I went alone. Entering her room, I crossed a stagnant wall of warmth, a rite of passage into sterile air. She was curled up in her bed, fingers tightened to nervous fists. I spoke to her gently and she woke; her eyes caught me looking at her like I was an old friend and a stranger. She didn’t speak in words, but as I kept talking to her, I found that if I asked “yes” or “no” questions she could answer them with definitive groans for “yes” and “no.” I asked her if she was doing okay. No. I asked her if she felt any pain. No. I asked her if she knew she was loved. Yes. Yes. Yes.
I whispered that I wanted to pray very special prayers for her. She knew what it meant—to have a priest visit with prayers and oil—and we grieved together. I held her hand, cool like butter soft leather, while I anointed her head with oil. In the silence left at the end of the rite, she perked up and said—with perfection enunciation after days of not a word—Thank you! A small rally, a moment to show me who she really was. She, then finished, sank. I reminded her how much she was loved by her family, by our church, and by the God who made her and calls her His own.
A week or so later, we stood outside by the mausoleum, gathered to commit her body to its resting place. Just before the committal, someone asked for her casket to be opened one last time. My eyes sailed across her casket, and all I could see was my Grandmere. I wrecked, seeing Grandmere’s face again, as it betrayed her with the same sunken lie it had told before.
In the summer of 2010, Grandmere was taken off life support in Montgomery, while I was doing my hospital chaplaincy in San Antonio. For the last eight or so years of her life, she suffered from dementia. It was the slowest and most cruel death I could imagine for someone so bright in heart and wit. She’s my second mother and that’s how I grieve her. When my father left, we moved in with Grandmere, and in doing so we took on her TV preferences. This means that I’m 31 years old, but I grew up getting my news exclusively out of the mouths of Tom Brokaw and Jim Lehrer, Ken Burns was my favorite history teacher, and I’ve seen every episode of Are You Being Served? at least three times.
But her real interest was the Titanic. Every newspaper article, every magazine article, every documentary. She loved to tell the stories of the Titanic (and its rival ship the Lusitania—another story to read up on if you’re interested in this, the story of the most tragic voyage of a ship from The White Star Line, she might say) so much that you’d believe she was the sole survivor. Grandmere even watched the 1997 film multiple times in theaters, surprising because she usually would not return to a film with nudity, nor would she even so much as go to a movie theater given that there were perfectly good films on the television (which she had already paid to view). Over time, her pristine collection of Titanic articles lost its order at the same pace she lost her mind. She would circle through the same few facts about the Titanic, making actors out of amateurs as we pretended to learn.
Mama called to tell me that she was only kept alive by machines, and that they could wait on me to fly back before they turned them off. I told her not to wait. I was already working on a flight, because I knew I was headed to Alabama regardless, but I didn’t know when I could get there. I commuted all summer for my chaplaincy, and I needed to get from San Antonio back to Austin, then from Austin to Montgomery.
Sometimes when I cannot sleep at night, those phone calls are what ring in my ears as a haunting, the hiss of memory in a lonely room. I didn’t mean to abandon her, neglect her, miss her final breath. I didn’t want to make her suffer another few hours after years of dying inside her mind. She didn’t know who I was, and I’d long ago promised to only remember her as the sole survivor of the Titanic.
I couldn’t say goodbye to her like that; I vowed to keep her alive through the memories she could no longer remember to carry. A few years before she died, and in the years since then, I’ve found that when I go to Alabama I end up digging through boxes. I love to see the smallest notes she left behind, the books she dog-eared, and even the novels that remain unopened, because she lost her reading mind before she could get that far into the stack. Almost every time I go home, I ask for just another little something: a coin purse, a small desk mirror, costume jewelry, a yellowed picture of PawPaw. In the years when she was slipping away, we gathered her tattered lists, wrinkled newspaper clippings, the stamps she steamed off of letters to save for only God knows what. I can tell in each salvaged Christmas card where she must have been in her illness when she wrote it, as her penmanship showed the vibration of age. I couldn’t say goodbye, because I refuse to.
Sitting in the warmth of that nursing home, I said the prayers I couldn’t pray for my Grandmere. I didn’t know how to say goodbye to her; I hadn’t yet spent enough time with the only prayers I could’ve stumbled through at her bedside. I didn’t know how to send her on her way, because I held on to her so tightly.
Dementia is a type of death by loneliness. She sank into the cool depth of herself, after being tethered to any memory that could keep her warm for just another day. To be lonely is to feel forgotten. She could only live alone inside her mind for so long before she had to let go. I refuse to say goodbye, vowing to keep her alive through the memories she could no longer remember to carry.