I remember two things from the end of my grandfather’s life. I was a very little girl, but I remember his eyes and I remember his stories.
I didn’t see my grandfather very often as a child, but when I did, I could always count on him for a tall-tale. He loved to tell me about how he almost caught the Easter Bunny and about the year he snuck up on Santa.
The stories he told on my final visit were different. They were true. While my father stood silently next to me, my grandfather told me about how he had just gone on a trip to Chicago, and while he was there, he took in a wrestling match and a visit to a pool hall. He told me I was just as pretty as those lovely ladies who worked in the hall. He was vividly describing something that had happened 50 years earlier as though it were only last weekend.
My grandfather’s mind had begun working backwards. Little did I know that for months and months, he had been slowly slipping back into another time period. I just thought he was being funny by telling silly stories. I look back now and cannot even begin to imagine how hard it was for my father to watch his father’s mind deteriorate.
Judy Petermann wrote me about her sister-in-law’s experience with kindness that reminded me of my grandfather. I’m sure many of you with aging parents or spouses will relate to Judy’s gratitude toward a stranger.
“Recently, Gena, my sister-in-law who thoroughly enjoys visiting, struck up a conversation with a woman seated at a nearby table. The woman was driving alone through Fargo from Williston, N.D., on her way to the east coast to spend time with family. These two women visited about times past, especially focusing on farming memories.
“Both spent their childhoods working on family farms in Western North Dakota and reminisced about the responsibility of bringing cows in from the pasture and milking, as well as cooking tasks at a young age.
“When it was time to part, they hugged and wished each other well. When Gena proceeded to pay her bill, the waiter informed her that the woman she was visiting with had already covered the charge of the meal for both Gena and her husband.
“That woman’s kindness extended much further than a free meal.
“Gena’s Alzheimer’s was diagnosed about 10-15 years ago and was oncoming much before that. Now, when visiting about present day happenings, she needs to ask the same question about what’s happening, who will be there, or where we’re going every 2 minutes or so.
“The response she seeks only stays with her for a short time, so she needs to ask the same questions again and again. But when visiting about the past, she can continue to stay with the topic and contribute more. Then she enjoys visiting and will even tell remembered jokes.
“The present, however, is difficult. When family or friends are gathered and visiting about issues related to careers, lives, which various family members belong together or even who the newest family babies are, she is lost. She cannot retain that information.
“This can easily bring about depression, because she does have some knowledge of how much she is losing out in family members’ conversations including immediate family. Her only means of connecting is when referring to childhood or past experiences. Hence, visiting with a stranger who will engage her is so refreshing for her. Knowing who they are isn’t what’s important to her.
“This story of sharing preserved memories met the needs of two women who needed companionship: one because she was traveling without family or friends, and the other who got to live in the present while talking about the past.”
– Judy Petermann
The real gift given that day wasn’t the cost of a meal. It was the precious time spent talking with a stranger who felt like she had found a special friend instead of remembering all that she had lost.
Please continue to share your stories of kindness with me at email@example.com. Or send a letter to Kindness is Contagious c/o Nicole J. Phillips, The Forum, 101 5th St. N., Box 2020, Fargo, ND, 58107.