For Honey

“Oh, not much worse.” That was my granddad’s response almost every morning when I asked him how he was. On occasion, he varied from this, offering a nuanced version of the same sentiment. But this was rare. These last years, he’s become a man of routine, and his language like a liturgy we can all recite with him.

For several years now, dementia has progressively vandalized my granddad’s mind, stealing countless memories and modes of thinking. This has resulted not just in a loss of critical thought and recollection, but also of identity, as those faculties particularly defined my granddad, both to himself and others. In short, my granddad is disappearing.

From 2011-2014, I was privileged to live on and off with my grandparents in their Nashville home. In exchange for a comfortable room upstairs, warm meals, and plenty of love, I supported my grandmother in taking care of my granddad. This happened in various ways, but perhaps the most essential was simply through companionship—not so much for my granddad, but rather for my grandmother. Almost every morning, my grandmother and I visited over coffee and homemade muffins, sitting in our blue swivel rocking chairs in the study where the tall windows looked out over the Stones River. Along with losing his memory, my granddad has essentially ceased to converse. And so my grandmother watches as her conversation partner of nearly 60 years fades like the last rays of sunset. The few years I lived with them granted me the gift of traversing that uncharted country with her, hearing her tell their stories, and sitting with her through the pain of great loss.

Sitting in the study, shelves and shelves of my granddad’s books surrounded us. Biblical commentaries, biographies, histories, and various theological works are still stacked like monuments commemorating a mind well-formed. Awards, artifacts, and pictures from around the world decorate the walls. They are physical representations, remnants, of a world and a life they once knew.

My granddad was a scholar—and a damn good one. Born and raised in rural Oklahoma, he left his simple upbringings, and all the struggle and trauma they contained, to pursue the world of biblical scholarship. More than once, I’ve heard my grandmother refer to him as a “giant of a man.” And it seems he was, especially for his world. For 45 years, he taught and researched at various universities and lectured to audiences worldwide. He preached to his students the importance of a relentless pursuit of truth, and he himself lost much for that pursuit. He authored multiple works on the New Testament, archaeology, and the Apostle Paul, and his sweat mixed with the dirt of numerous archaeological digs in the Middle East. He raised three outstanding, service-minded sons, and he loved his wife with a dedication and fire all could admire.

Almost everything that made my grandparents giants together is an article of the past now. Though my grandmother is still as sharp as ever, my granddad continues to become more and more like a child. Sometimes when I’m visiting I’ll notice him watching TV for hours with no sound—just staring at the images, as if he’s hypnotized. Whereas once upon a time this professor with a PhD from the University of Chicago could read and translate ancient Greek, he now often rereads the same simple books multiple times a week because he forgets that he read them the day before. Though he loves the taste of tacos and pizza, he wouldn’t know to tell you if you asked. His disease is chaotic. Random. He may forget that he ate breakfast just two hours earlier, but he’ll remember a stanza of 18th century Scottish poetry. He can’t remember his own age, but he knows how to calculate the Roman numerals of the Super Bowl. There’s no rhyme or reason to the madness. And thus, we’ve watched him slip away—illogically, unfairly, uncontrollably, so that he is but an echo of his earlier symphony. I used to watch him— inconspicuously—as he stares glossy-eyed into seeming nothingness. He sits there like a shadow, a ghost of the man he once was. As I’ve heard my uncle Rob say more than once, “I miss him even when I’m with him.”

Despite all he’s lost, my granddad knows two things from his past well. With a deep familiarity, he sings the traditional hymns of his Christian faith. Sometimes I joined my grandparents for Sunday morning service, a tradition dear to them both, though my granddad likely could not explain why. On occasion, my grandmother nudged me during the hymn singing: “He knows every single one by heart,” she’d whisper, and I’d look up at this frail man who rarely speaks, but who musters up some kind of soul- sound when he sings the hymns of his faith. He knows those old songs. And he knows my grandmother.

A few years back, my grandmother went to Chicago for a few days to visit their youngest son. When she called to check on him, I’d hear him say, “I miss you, Sugar. When are you coming home?” After 59 years, she’s still his sugar. Due to her role as primary caretaker, my grandmother rarely gets time away. One of the gifts I offered was coordinating schedules with her so I could stay with my granddad while she left the house, time she usually spent looking in on lifelong friends who spent their days alone. When she left, she always wrote a note for him, saying where she’d gone and when she’d be back. When she was away most of the day, he didn’t get out of bed. He’d arise in his pj’s, read the note, grab a muffin she’d set out, and go back to bed. Some days he stayed in bed until 4 or 5pm. Without his sugar, where is the sweetness in life? She is what he lives for. Even if he doesn’t consciously know it, his body does.

And thus, when all other pieces seem to be gone or going, two remain: hymns and her. Music and love. After all, I’ve wondered, what else is there? There is some kind of music that lives in my granddad, some kind of rhythm and recognition, coming alive to the familiar tunes of faith and “sugar.”

Though I’ve known deep sadness witnessing my granddad’s disappearance, I cannot express the depths of my gratitude for the gift of living with them those years. I saw the reality of love well-nurtured, the beauty of a marriage tested and found miraculous. I’ve heard the melody of a love song 59 years in the making. For he loves her, and she loves him. Even though there’s not much left of the man she met back in 1956, you would never know it when you see them together—‘cause my grandmother works wonders.

Though today’s reality was neither imagined nor chosen, it is what is, and she lives each day with a freshness that astonishes. Though she’s learned the liturgy of my granddad’s speech, she recites it with him every day like it’s the first time. Every morning, she sets out his clothes and breakfast for him, as decision-making is one of the many casualties of his disease. Each week she organizes his medicine for the next, and she always leaves notes. For the family, and especially my grandmother, preserving my granddad’s dignity is paramount, and she is masterful at it. When visitors come calling, she always includes him in the conversation, though he has nothing to add. When visitors ask him something, she gently intercepts, offering an answer, but always turning to him for confirmation. She saves him the embarrassment of not knowing, but allows him the dignity of inclusion. I’ve watched her in wonder as she weaves his voice in and out of a conversation.

Today, every decision for my granddad is challenging. Whether it’s ordering food or picking a movie, he seems paralyzed by choices. Over the years, I’ve watched my grandmother carefully, learning from her grace and craft. When my granddad stares dumbfounded at a menu, she’ll approach delicately. “Well, you’ve always loved this,” she might suggest. “You want to just stick with that this time?” “Yeah, that’ll be fine,” he replies, as if the problem was more his indifference than his incapability. In his old age, my granddad is serene. Nothing worries him, because his bride knows him well and has his trust.

Describing her loving is like describing the sharing of a great story—you have to be there. For her loving exists in the looks and the touches, the movement and the stillness, the words and the silence. I see her love him with her laugh and her smile. I see her love with him with presence and tears, as she grieves his passing. I see her love him with hugs and sweet kisses. I see her love him with unyielding devotion and intentionality. And I see her love him with grace and acceptance.

In the end, I think my granddad is right: day to day, he’s “not much worse.” But that’s because she couldn’t love him any better.

Michael McRay is an author, educator and facilitator of storytelling, and you can find more of him here.  Read more stories that open our minds, and build bridges instead of walls, in The Porch Magazine - click here to see every issue.