“You know, you’re a really good driver.”
I went to visit my grandparents the summer when my grandfather was in the later stages of Alzheimer’s. He had been angry, through much of the experience, irritable in the way that feeling your memory and identity slip out from underneath you will cause you to be. But when I went to see him, that was all over. He was calm, relaxed, easy-going. He had no idea who I was, of course, or most of his children, and when I was picking raspberrries and weeding with him, he was curious as a child about the plants in his garden that he had spent his life tending. “What do you think this is?” he would say, holding up the plant he had pulled up, instead of the weeds we had been instructed by my grandmother to pull. He had no idea, and was tickled at the discovery. A life long Wisconsin farmer, he couldn’t remember the difference between a weed and a vegetable.
My grandfather was always perfectly kind, and he had a coarse joviality, but he was also never very demonstrative or expressive. That was his wife, my grandmother, who would fill our every minute of every day with activity, useful or just fun. He could also be stern, but mainly he was just busy, busy and self-contained. As a child, growing up, I liked him, but also had never really connected with him. He liked children, perfectly well, just didn’t have much to say to them, and there were always a lot of them; they were a good catholics, you might say, and had eight kids and thus quite a few grandkids (whose visits we always tried to overlap with). Before he came down with Alzheimer’s — when I was in my teens and later — he had opened up a bit, slowed down a little, but when I was a child, my main interaction with him was through the gadgets he would make, everything from little wooden rubber band shooting pistols to the giant swingset he had constructed in the back yard.
As I drove them to the truckstop diner that grandma had picked out to eat, later that day, he asked perhaps fifteen times where we were going, and who I was. This was normal, and we answered patiently. Then, suddenly, he looked at me and said, “You know, you’re a really good driver.” And he patted my hand affectionately. I had tears in my eyes.
Since he died, now a few years ago, I think back to that moment as maybe the only time when he ever did anything like that, at least with me. He wasn’t an affectionate man, by nature, and across the generations, I always squinted dimly to see him. But in that one moment, when he had forgotten how old he was or who I was, when it didn’t matter, he looked at me and patted my hand in a memory I still cherish, for reasons I can’t fully articulate. But it’s what I remember when I think of him.
* * *
When I heard the news that Gabriel García Márquez was in the beginning stages of dementia, I wrote a piece over at The New Inquiry on García Márquez’ One Hundred Years of Solitude, a longish essay I called “Autumn of the Patriarch, Forgetting to Live.” But I was also thinking of my grandfather.