I never really understood my grandfather and now that he has dementia I'm afraid I never really will.
That I never understood him is not to be mistaken with not being close to him. My whole life I've lived within two blocks of my grandparents. He used to take me up to his house in the Catskills on long weekends. He would come to my house every evening on his after-dinner stroll, and when he saw me he would sing out my name, "Elisabetta."
Sometimes I thought about a time when those visits would end. I thought, as children sometimes do, about how one day my grandfather would pass away and how I would miss seeing him. I thought death would stop these visits, not a disease that would rob him of his ability to walk, to eat, to talk, to enjoy life. I never thought that would happen.
My grandfather, my nonno, was a police officer when he was a young man in Italy. He met my grandmother and said, "That's who I'm going to marry" (as family folklore goes). When he moved to New York he became a barber and owned an apartment building. When I ate dinner over at my grandparents' house, I would sit beside him and he'd share an apple with me. When he visited my house we would play a game where he'd sit on the couch and I would run at him full tilt and expect him to catch me. I imagine now that game got old for him fast. He would take me and my brothers and my cousins to the country in the summer to go horseback riding or swimming at the lake, and in the winter we would go sledding on garbage pail lids and roast marshmallows on the only fireplace I've ever known. And it's strange to think I could spend so much time with someone and not know them. My grandfather understood English but mainly spoke Italian, and to this day I still only have a loose grasp on the language. Because of this I never asked him what his favorite type of music was or what games he played as a kid or what is was like living in Italy during World War II. I think I figured I always had time.
Now my grandfather doesn't speak English at all; he says it confuses him. When he's confused, he's upset, and a lot of things confuse him these days. That's the worst thing about dementia. If it were just the incontinence, or the immobility, or the loss of appetite, we could accommodate him. The most despicable thing about this disease is the depression that is causes.
Last Friday was a bad day. My aunt called to say that she called by my grandparents' house and her daughter, who goes there after school, said that nonno and nonna were both crying and could someone walk by there. I went, feeling like I was walking into a disaster. It was surprisingly calm; my cousin was doing her homework, my grandmother was baking. But then I saw my grandfather. He was hunched over in his chair, handkerchief pressed to his face. His voice broke when he tried to speak to me. Then he began to sob. In his slurred, jumbled way I can only barely understand he repeated the phrases we've come to hear frequently: my head isn't working, I'm confused, staio muorino, I'm dying, do you love me?
I sat beside him and murmured every placating thing I could think of without knowing what I was saying. I held his hand. I told him of course I loved him. I wasn't sure if any of this was getting through, but eventually he stopped crying when I showed him pictures from the old days, before dementia stole him away and left this weeping, whimpering old man.
Unfortunately this disease is progressive; the grandfather I grew up with is not coming back, but he is still here. I don't have as much time as I thought, but I do still have time with him. It's hard to see him this way, but I'm not going to waste any more time.