How My Grandmother’s Dementia Taught Me To Remember

The last time I saw my grandmother before she died was with my new wife.  We had gotten married six months earlier, and were visiting Israel to study for the summer.  It was our own version of a honeymoon.

My father had asked me to go visit.  “She’s getting further into dementia.  We have no idea how much time she has left.  I really hope you see her.”

So off we went to Kiryat Bialik, the small town near Haifa where my parents grew up.  My grandmother was my last living grandparent.  I hadn’t seen her in years.  Had never seen her without my parents.  Hadn’t seen her since the dementia got bad.

We arrived in the home, and the caretaker opened the door.  She smiled and let us in, and then went to go fetch my grandmother.  We had to sit and wait in the living room for a bit.  It was quiet.  I pointed out photos of my family throughout the room.  I smiled, remembering my times here as a kid.  But it was so much emptier now, without the yells of children, the chattering of parents, the food being prepared.  For all the sun in the room, for all the memories, I couldn’t help but feel that the house felt a bit like a tomb.

Then my grandmother walked in and sat down with us.  She gave me a huge smile, so happy to see me.

“Mah ha-shem shelcha?” she asked. “What’s your name?”

“I’m Elad,” I said in my faltering Hebrew, “I’m your grandson.”

She nodded.  “Ken, ken.  Elad.”  “Yes, yes.  Elad.”

“Veh mi zeh?” she went on, pointing at my wife.  “And who is this?”

“Her name is Marcy,” I said.  “She is my wife.”

“Ve-mah ha-shem chelcha?” she asked. “And what is your name?”

And that was how it went for a while.  I’d have to remind her who I was.  Sometimes I’d say, and she wouldn’t remember anyone named Elad.  But she was still happy to see me.  She still understood that I was someone she loved, someone she cared for.  She’d ask me questions about my life, then repeat the questions, then forget the answers again, then ask me who I was.

There is this power in dementia.  This awareness that whatever is happening deeply matters to the person, even if they themselves don’t know it.  I thought of how my father spoke about his mother, the way he sounded so sad, and yet was determined to be in touch with her, to visit her whenever he was in Israel, to make sure she was properly cared for.  I always had trouble understanding it.  It seemed like more an attempt to just hold on, to pretend she wouldn’t keep forgetting.  But in that moment, sitting with her, it was clear that even when the moments were fleeting, even if she only remembered me for a second, that second mattered to her.  The smile she’d have on her face when she recalled me was enough, was like it mattered more than an eternality of anything else.

Later into the visit, she took us into the kitchen and tried to prepare some food for us.  The caretaker smiled and said she’d take care of it.  My grandmother got angry, said she was fine, she could do it.  She was sure.  But she couldn’t.  The caretaker just nodded and waited for the moment to pass, and helped my grandmother sit down to continue chatting with us.  She looked vaguely annoyed for a moment, like she was angry but couldn’t figure out why.  Then she looked at me.

“Veh ma-hashem shelcha?” she asked.

“I’m Elad,” I said, it now feeling like just part of the routine, just part of the pattern of speaking to her.

“Elad.  Ken.  Veh mi zeh?”

I explained that this was my wife, Marcy.  That we had come to visit, that we missed her.  That my father was sad he couldn’t join us.

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She nodded.  She asked me why I was in Israel.  I told her we had come to study.  To learn.  Her eyes lit up.

“Metzuyan,” she said. “Excellent.”

“Always study, always grow,” she continued, as if suddenly something came utterly alive in her, as if there was no haze in her mind, as if it had never been there in the first place. “Learning is the best thing you can do.  The best thing you can do for yourself.  Just keep learning, whatever it is you want to learn, and you will grow.”

And on she went.  It was like a stream, a nonstop stream of articulate, beautiful thoughts that had been contemplated beforehand.

And of course, they had been.  My father had always told me how much his mother pushed him to keep learning, how instilled he was with it.  It was the reason he did so well in school, the reason he went to the Technion, the top engineering school in Israel, and the reason he ended up getting a PhD in Stanford.  Why he ended up teaching in Yale, and now Washington University in St. Louis.

It was also the lesson he had tried so hard to instill in me, and one that I rebelled against for most of my life.  The poor man had such a storied academic career, and his son ended up going to Arizona State, whose main claim to fame was being named the number one party school by Playboy magazine the year before I arrived.

But, my grandmother happened to catch me at a special moment in my life.  Right when my wife and I were deciding whether to come back to Israel, to move here, so we could study more Torah.  We knew how much more we had to grow in this area, and we felt a calling to come out for longer.  And ever since I had embraced Judaism, the lesson I kept hearing was “Learn, learn, learn.  It is the key to growth.”

And in that moment, I understood my father on a deeper level than I ever had.  He had always been utterly encouraging in my growth in Judaism, despite the fact that it also meant me choosing orthodoxy and thus joining a world he didn’t fully agree with.  To him, the fact that I was learning was what mattered.  Learning, to my father, and because of his mother, was inherently worthy. Whatever the learning was.  That was why my parents were also so encouraging of my writing, and so much of the other parts of my life: they just wanted me to learn.

My grandmother turned to my wife and said, “Marcy, you are learning too?”

She had remembered that this was my wife, and what her name was.  The clarity was profound.  Marcy (now Rivka, thanks to her growth in learning) nodded and said she was.  My grandmother’s eyes lit up.  She was so happy.

It’s hard to know how individual moments like these affect us.  So much of life is the steady drip drop of tiny moments that help influence and shape who we are.  I do know, however, that I remember this moment because it was around the time I had finally decided to take learning more seriously, both Jewish and otherwise.  In my first trip to yeshiva, I had spent so much of it devoted to writing, reading, and Lost.  But when Rivka and I sold all our things after that summer and moved to Israel, we both seemed to make an internal calculation that learning, growing, was more valuable than anything else in the world.  It was how we could stay human, how we could contribute to the world, how we could make sure nothing in life ever became about routine or just becoming memory banks living off of past experiences instead of learning from new ones.

It was how I ended up growing in the world of marketing, by committing to reading something new every day about my work.  It was how I was able to navigate the pain of leaving what I thought was my path in orthodoxy and finding a new one.  It was how I was able to finally delve deeper into this idea of what creativity is, and finally marry it to my Jewish observance in a way that felt authentic and real.

It was, in short, how I became who I am today.

All of this, in some way, was influenced by this moment with my grandmother.  And on a larger scale, it was her influence on my father, on her family, that laid the seeds for the plant that would eventually grow from me, even if it took time, watering, and the light of Judaism to help it come to life.

A year or so later, my grandmother passed away.  I remember speaking to my father on the phone about it.  How I could hear this understanding in his voice that he knew it was her time, but how he still could not truly understand that she was gone.  And I am sure it was because, besides being his mother, she had such a deep influence on him.  She had guided who he became, and ensured that this valuable lesson lived on him.

And now, I am grateful to say, it has lived on in me.

Because while she passed away, that moment where she came alive in front of me, where it was as if she had never suffered dementia, was a metaphor for her life in general.  She is not dead.  Because her lesson, and so many others, is now alive in her family, flowing, growing, and constantly nourishing us all.