A Shrinking World

December 20, 2014

I’m sitting in the Penthouse of my aunt and uncle’s house, the somewhat recently finished attic with bed, bath and TV, which we affectionately call the Penthouse, and reflecting upon the last 24 hours with my family.

My husband, sister, dad, stepmom, aunt, uncle, grandfather and grandmother are all in the same area for what seems will be the last time. My grandparents are 95, and I feel like I’ve been saying it’s the last time at each family gathering, but I think this time, I may be right.

My grandfather has Dementia, which hasn’t really been an issue much until the last 5 years or so. We definitely noticed a change in him, most notably in the conversations we were having: I fought in WWII… this is my bride (in reference to my grandmother)… Killroy was Here (I have no idea about the origin of that one)…

a photo of my grandfather in world war two
My grandfather, in one of the few photos we have of him 1. during the war and 2. smiling.

With each visit every year or so, the world of stories shrank just a bit, and we found ourselves in more repetitive topics of conversation than the last visit. My grandfather’s world shrinks as each day passes, focusing in on the most traumatic experience of his life, his time as a combat engineer in the South Pacific in the second World War.

At first, the Dementia was a good thing for our family because it caused my grandfather to open up about his experiences in the war, something he previously refused to do. We enjoyed hearing him talk about it, not because it was good story time, but because it was our chance to attempt to understand what he went through. My grandfather spoke of bodies floating down the body of water he was wading through and also of the time he got a haircut in Japan and realized he was letting a Japanese man hold a straight razor to his neck — a questionable decision in his mind. He spoke of escorting the women who were a part of the medical unit in the Army wherever they went to ensure their safety, and of his return to the US, where he remembers seeing the Statue of Liberty and saying “Lady, if you and I are ever to meet face to face again someday, you will have to turn and face the other way.”

My grandfather is now at the point where he’s beginning to forget the important details, the details that he’s always been able to hold onto, the details that have kept him grounded. Who he is, who my grandmother is, where he is… those basic details.

My sister, husband and I arrived at my grandparents’ house yesterday evening to say hello and spend a bit of time with them before dinner, and my grandfather opened the door.

“Who are you?” He asked.

I knew this moment would come, I’d been telling myself leading up to the trip that he wouldn’t know who I was. He won’t know you, Caitlyn.

I still couldn’t prepare myself for it.

“My name is Caitlyn, this is my sister Madison, and this is my husband, Andrew. May we come in?”

I knew if I could get in the door and see my grandmother, she’d know who we are and my grandfather would be more at ease with the three strangers that just walked into his house.

A little later — after an hour of my husband answering the question “Were you in the war?” — my grandfather asked my sister who we all were, and my sister explained that we were his grandchildren, to which he replied “No” and shook his head a little bit.

There’s no other way to describe this than odd. How do you describe introducing yourself to someone you’ve known your entire life? I’m sad, but not upset. It is what it is, and there’s nothing we can do to change it.

Being around strangers is very unsettling for my grandfather, and as a result, we’re not able to spend as much time together as we have on previous visits. My grandmother is fully with it but can’t be separated from my grandfather without absolutely turning his world upside down, so we’re here, sitting at my aunt and uncle’s, visiting my grandparents in short spurts and hoping for a good day.

What’s a good day? My grandfather talking about killing people in the war instead of talking about killing the young man that’s shaking his hand at church. Saying “That’s my bride” over and over and over again instead of asking my grandmother “Who are you married to?”

I don’t know how to conclude this post. I don’t know what I’m feeling or how to think about this, but I wanted to write about this experience. I know how this story will end in actuality — my grandfather’s world will continue to narrow until the familiar no longer exists. Until then, we gather together, laughing, sharing and enjoying each others’ company, catching short and increasingly disappearing glimpses of the grandfather we’ll remember long after he has forgotten.