I had been thinking about his garden. Even before he lost his swallow, before his final, peaceful days, I’d been thinking about his garden.
Maybe you knew that garden. It was exciting, and a little daunting, as children to go through the gate into what seemed like a tropical jungle. There was colour and life everywhere, and more often than not Grandpa was hidden in the middle of it, tending to something. It was not a garden you looked at, it was a garden you experienced. It flourished. I had been wondering how he did it.
When Grandpa died at the beginning of August, I thought of that garden. And I thought of garden metaphors. I think we all did.
We thought of him tending and nurturing plants. We thought of him tending and nurturing us, and other people, and his faith. We thought of the things he planted. We heard from people whose lives he’d touched. We wondered how he did it.
‘Unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies’, we reminded ourselves.
To think of life at work underneath the surface of what looks dead and desolate, brings enormous comfort. Garden metaphors make sense to many of us in the face of loss. And they make sense in the face of dementia.
Or they don’t.
Nothing ‘makes sense’ in the face of dementia. You could become an expert on Lewy Body Dementia, like my my mum essentially did, and it still wouldn’t make sense.
When Grandpa lost his swallow, it seemed like old Boughton’s lament in Gilead that “Jesus never had to be old!”, was fitting. What else could you say about years of steadily losing every piece of himself?
I want it to make sense. I am tempted to force an uplifting lesson out of it for a blog post, to smooth over the sharp edges of dementia with my words.
Or, I am tempted to write-it off, a dark chapter jammed between an inspiring life and a blessed eternity.
But something is making me sit with, instead of make sense of. Maybe it’s the Wendell Berry-effect. I have just finished ‘The Memory of Old Jack’, after all, where wise and gentle Mat Feltner draws up a chair and sits beside Old Jack a while “in death as he had sat with him in life”, where he refrains from exacting a tribute on his passive remains.
My 5-year-old wants to draw his face. It’s her first reaction when she hears about his death.
“Let’s draw a picture of him that looks exactly like him,” she says with Lola- esque emphasis.
Exactly like him.
My Auntie P and I shared a wee moment in Grandpa’s room the day before he died. We looked at the photos on his wall. With Nana on his wedding day: “So handsome”. A portrait of the pair many decades later: “Still so handsome. So robust.”.
That second photo, to me, is Exactly Like Him. But not to my 5-year-old.
She is very clear about the face she wants to draw. She does not like the photographs that I like. She wants “a picture of him in the last home he lived in, looking like that.”
She only knew him very old. She only ever knew him with dementia. That’s Grandpa to her. That’s the face worth drawing, the face worth remembering. She will not let me air-brush.
We sing songs at his Thanksgiving service about Home. All The Way My Saviour Leads Me. There is a Hope. The Lord’s My Shepherd.
I listen to them in my kitchen for weeks afterwards as I do my mulling over, my own laying to rest.
“For your endless mercy follows me, your goodness will lead me home.”
I don’t know what to make of it, this vision of mercy and goodness pursuing him right through the dementia. But I like it. And I sing.
Dementia is harrowing and yet any tendency in me toward pity, any attempt to wrap up this final chapter of his life in exclusively brutal language, has always been stopped short when I have observed my daddy.
“We became the best of friends”, my dad said in his tribute. He was talking about the relationship that formed between him and his father-in-law after Grandpa came to live with them, and then during his years in a near-by nursing home.
At one stage of his dementia Grandpa started referring to my dad as his brother. Dad didn’t bat an eyelid. He just started referring to him as his brother too.
Best Friends. Brothers.
The most debilitating years of Grandpa’s life, yet the bond they formed was extraordinary. It changed my life, a bit, to witness it.
I think of an article in the Guardian by Helen Dunmore about the novel ‘We Are Not Ourselves’ and its astonishing portrayal of dementia. She writes: “The novel’s account of this illness and its terrible progress through a life is unsparing, but never cold or removed. Thomas creates an intimacy with Ed’s struggle against his own mental dissolution that is intensely moving.”
My parents shared in the intimacy of Grandpa’s struggle and there aren’t really words to describe that. I just need to sit in a chair and think about it.
As I sit, I have these favourite quotes I am sitting with. They mean something to me, this month. They come to mind as I think about this particular man.
They are all from the novel Gilead. Maybe you will find them worth sitting with, too:
“Existence seems to me now the most remarkable thing that could ever be imagined.”
“There are a thousand thousand reasons to live this life, every one of them sufficient.”
“He will wipe the tears from all faces.” It takes nothing from the loveliness of the verse to say that is exactly what will be required.