We are all so afraid of death. We don’t want to think about it. We don’t want to talk about it. And we certainly don’t want do it.
But sometimes there is beauty in the knowing. The knowing it is near and we can give life its proper good-bye. My Buppa’s* ninety-third birthday is approach and his Alzheimer’s is all-consuming. So I knew my recent visit to Minnesota would probably be a farewell.
When I entered the Veteran’s nursing home, I found him in the lunchroom. He doesn’t sit up as straight as he used to. Instead his 6’2” frame was hunched over some peas he was pushing around on his plate. He wasn’t going to eat the peas. Instead he made the effort like he might.
I greeted him and told him who I was to him. He spoke to me in Finnish. I spoke into his left ear, where the hearing is better, slowly telling him a sentence he had taught me in Finnish when I was nineteen and he was eighty. “En puhu suomea.”
His eyes lit up at hearing Finnish back to himself. But, he also acknowledged that I was saying “I don’t speak Finnish,” and he switched to English again. We did this a few times. We chatted for a bit. But he doesn’t have any news. He can share memories, but I think even that is taxing.
I told him that I loved him. I hugged him, while we sat in front of uneaten peas. He wrapped his right arm up around me and in the most sincere way said, “I adore you.” It was the last thing he said to me when I saw him two years ago, when I was certain he recalled our relationship to each other.
This time, I will never be certain, but I think then he remembered that I was his granddaughter who loves him, who he taught some Finnish phrases to. The granddaughter who visited him over the years and Minnesota summers. And I looked at his eyes and they were blue with memory and mine were wet with happiness, sadness.
When the attendee handed him an unwrapped popsicle—vanilla covered in chocolate—he eagerly grabbed it. He took a bite and then he passed it to me. We shared this moment. It was lovely. See the Alzheimer’s never changed the warmth of his personality. I knew sitting next to him, he may not recognize me anymore as his blood. But he did recognize me as someone who loved him and someone he wanted to share a popsicle with.
This disease robs my grandfather of things us humans feel are givens. He doesn’t know which stories aren’t his anymore, imagination and memory are intertwined. But I knew that after another hug and after a knowing glance that when he said he loved me, that he meant he loved me.
He Arnold. He Buppa. He War Veteran. He Father of Five. He Carpenter. All the things that made him He, loved me.
And all the things that make me his Granddaughter, love him.
*Buppa is what I’ve always called my grandfather. I was told it’s Finnish for grandpa.