Grandma didn’t always make chicken and rice casserole without the chicken. And she didn’t always ask mom three times if she wanted to save or throw out the leftover peas. But these moments became the ones seared in my memory in the years after she’d gone. Though watching her sporadic mental hiccups in her final years seemed more funny than saddening to my nine-year-old self, I can now view those forgetful instances through more mature lenses. And I’ve learned a great deal from what I saw.
I will especially hold one memory close to my heart for many more years, probably until the day when I tell my own grandchildren how much I love the ice cream bowls—finished with messy drizzles of chocolate sauce and bright red cherries—that they will make me someday.
“I think I’d like some ice cream,” my grandma casually stated aloud in the presence of me and my sister, hoping that her passing comment was enough for us to get the hint that she wanted us to turn her craving into an actual bowl of ice cream.
I sprang out of my seat on the couch, nestled next to her and her grandma smell. My sister sauntered over as I was dropping the first heaping spoonful of vanilla into her oversized bowl. My grandma and I would have thought something was wrong had she moved any faster.
I rummaged through the messy pantry, looking for the most devilishly diet-busting toppings for Grandma’s sundae. I knew Grandma’s sweet tooth well. Her favorites were all of my mom’s favorites, but really I knew that anything with high doses of sugar and chocolate would do.
“Do you want sprinkles, Grandma? Chocolate syrup, Grandma? Cookie crumbles, Grandma? A cherry on top, Grandma?”
“It all sounds lovely, Katie.”
For my grandma, everything was lovely.
My sister garnished the bowl with a spoon. “Grandma!” I yelled. “I finished it! I made it extra special for you…two cherries! I know you’ll think it tastes lovely.” My sister and I scurried to the table, placing our own ornate-looking ice cream bowls on either side of Grandma’s.
Grandma politely placed the napkin on her lap, leaving me wondering why that was necessary when only ice cream was on the menu. I didn’t think grandmas were that messy (but my grandma was just that classy). The three of us sat quietly, listening to the clicks of our spoons against the glass bowls. “This ice cream is delicious, girls,” Grandma noted for the first time.
I started telling Grandma and my sister a story about what happened during recess at school that day. Grandma looked like she was interested in my story, and then said, “This ice cream is delicious, girls.”
My sister and I exchanged glances, but didn’t hold the other’s gaze in case Grandma happened to look up. I think we also wanted to give her the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps she really loved our ice cream so much that stating it once simply didn’t do our hard work and youthful creativity the justice it deserved.
“This ice cream is delicious, girls,” Grandma said to us.
My sister couldn’t contain her giggle this time, which of course made me follow suit with my own muted snicker. I had tried to hold back the chuckle, but the air pushed its way out of my mouth like a bomb waiting to explode and rattle my lips. Grandma looked at the two of us and with even more loveliness in her soft voice, she asked, “Did I already say that once before?”
My sister and I were at least old enough to know she already knew the answer to her question, and that her question was more of a polite apology than an inquiry about what she already recognized was happening to her brain. She smiled, chuckled, and looked at us sweetly, picking up her bowl and walking back into the kitchen.
“I love Grandma,” my sister whispered aloud after a few seconds of thick silence.
“Yeah.” My smile faded. “And I hate strokes,” I replied, watching Grandma wash her dish with a soapy sponge, and then quietly return to the couch.
~ ~ ~
My mother talks about my grandmother’s last years with a disguised sadness, but also an immense sense of respect. I can see the love in my mom’s eyes every time she tells me about how she and her siblings would look at Grandma’s lipstick to see what kind of a day she was having. For me, I think the most painful thing to witness in my grandmother’s slow cognitive decline was her awareness of it. It is one thing to lose your mind, and a whole other thing to know you’re losing it.
After Grandma passed away as a result of her final stroke in 2001, all of my relatives would share the stories of her memory lapses over the years, months, and days before her death. There was one common theme in all of our stories: Never had we witnessed or imagined a woman struggle with her sickness with the grace with which my grandmother did. Grandma knew how to suffer—beautifully.
How easy it becomes for us to go about our day-to-day lives, moaning and groaning over the little ailments that befall us, or thinking the world is coming to an end when something a little more serious flies our way. My grandmother was full of faith. She knew that God had a plan for her, and that in her later years, that plan was suffering. My grandma was my nearest Blessed John Paul II—similarly to how he taught the world to suffer with almost supernatural trust in God’s will, Grandma taught her family how to do so. St. Ignatius of Loyola taught, “If God gives you an abundant harvest of trials, it is a sign of great holiness which He desires you to attain. Do you want to become a great saint? Ask God to send you many sufferings.”
Whatever you are going through, remember that suffering is the meaty stuff that makes the saints. Grandma’s grace-filled acceptance of her forgetfulness over something as simple as a bowl of ice cream was evidence of the genuine trial of suffering that God was allowing her to experience, purifying and making her soul more beautiful day by day. And at the age of nine, I noticed that when suffering was paired with humility and trust, even her disheveled thoughts were lovely—just like Grandma.
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