My grandmother is 97. Which is a lot more like 7 than you might think. I spent the day with her recently – I know, I am so lucky to even still have a grandmother – and am always struck by how much we return to our toddler years as we age.
First off, she tells EVERYONE how old she is. It’s not that weird until you think, gee, do I go around telling people, hey, guess what, I’m 47? Of course not, that would be ridiculous. But it’s perfectly ok for her to make sure everyone knows her exact age, and for them to be suitably impressed. Just as they are for every child who proudly announces “I’m three!” And in a few weeks, when it’s her birthday, she will tell everyone “today is my birthday!” just as every small child does. And everyone will be charmed, and wish her a happy birthday, and no one will roll their eyes and deny her any attention. Because they will be impressed that she has made it to 98. Which they should be.
Until very recently, she lived on her own, in her own three-room apartment, cooking her meals (a scary thought, given her memory lapses), making her bed, paying her bills. But now, thanks to a fall, she’s in a “rehab facility” (aka nursing home), where it’s clear she needs to stay, because only now are her gaps becoming crystal clear. And yet she still harbors hopes of going back to her own place, even while she rings the nurse for help getting out of her chair, and while she’s relieved to not have to stand at the stove making her dinner. She still sees herself as independent and strong and capable of caring for herself.
She was telling the nurse the other day of how she was as capable as any man, knew how to use a hammer and screwdriver, and wasn’t afraid to climb a ladder to clean out her gutters. “You did this recently?” the nurse asked, ready to be amazed. I knew she hadn’t actually done any of this in over twenty years, but to my grandmother’s mind, it really wasn’t that long ago, and she could do it now, if it wasn’t for her darn bad knee.
But it’s more than just the knee, more than she even fully realizes. And now she needs help with dressing, and toileting, and remembering what happens next, just like a toddler. And she is just as delightful to spend time with, to listen to her sense of humor, her endless stories of life as a girl, her absolute faith that she is still the independent woman she always was. Because, unless she looks in the mirror, the woman she sees in her mind is still young and strong and capable.
It’s a revealing window into how we all age, if we are lucky, and how, no matter that our bodies sag and faces wrinkle, or how difficult it is to button a shirt or to open an envelope, we all have a picture of ourselves that is much younger and more vibrant than what others may see.
And I wish that woman, as well as the one I get to spend time with now, a very Happy Mother’s Day.