My Nana was diagnosed with dementia several years ago, but her decline began a couple of years before the actual diagnosis. My papaw died in my junior year of high school, and my family began visiting my Nana every Sunday shortly after his death. Not long after the weekly visits started, we started to see the first signs of decline. To be honest, I don’t know that I noticed it at the time. Of course, I would like to think I was observant and caring enough to see, but I am not sure. Time passed, and she began repeating the same story over and over and over while we visited. It became a joke between my dad, my brother, and me. It wasn’t a malicious joke, more of a commentary on the inevitability of hearing the same thing we listened to the week and month before. Something happened, though, over the next couple of years, something that was accompanied by shame*.
The joke became more like frustration. The frustration became a barrier. It was like I was using it to distance myself from Nana. Instead of embracing her and letting her tell the same story, I made her into a caricature. Instead of this person being my Nana, who happened to be behaving this way, her entire identity became this one behavior. I didn’t process the fact that I was losing Nana. I just gave up on her. I didn’t cherish that time. The following realization is unpleasant for me to write even now, but at the time, I thought, “If I am just going to hear the same story, what is the point?” "The point is she is still a human being, she is still your Nana, and she still deserves to be respected and loved," is what I want to tell my 18-23-year-old self, but it is too late. I lost that time. Now Nana is in a memory unit at a local nursing home, possibly going home on hospice soon. She doesn’t know me, my wife, or my daughter. She can barely talk much less tell a story. I now yearn for that lost time. I want to sit there for three hours while she goes on and on. And I can’t remember one of the stories she told. I was so tuned out; I can’t even make this story personal by telling you specifics.
The message has been repeated in song, poem, story, and sermon for thousands of years; be present even when there is suffering. Be present, ESPECIALLY when there is suffering. Because regardless of the situation we find ourselves in, it is the only time we have. We don’t get to go back in time and redo the moments of sadness and turn them into happiness. When we check-out, ignore or avoid, we give up that moment. It isn’t on lay-away to be picked up later, and it isn’t an investment that will pay off in the future. It is simply forfeited, and it is heartbreaking. Heartache and joy, peace and fear, and life and death are two sides of the same coin. Our knowledge of one is directly related, if not dependent, on the existence of the other. Failure is not in experiencing difficulty or suffering. Failure is not being present.
*I don’t view this with a continual shame. I don’t consider any of my shortcomings or failures with longterm shame and regret. I believe I am forgiven and released from those chains. However, I VERY MUCH recognize when I fall short. I then try to meditate on why I failed, look at how to improve, and take that lesson (not the feelings of failure) into the future. This behavior helps me not get bogged down in the all-consuming thoughts and feelings and pushes me to make actual changes. I recommend this practice for anyone that struggles with guilt or shame. I lost several years of happiness and life (yes, I know I am only 27) because I hated myself for failing. And the reality is, the only real failure during that time was getting stuck in those feelings and thoughts.