He sees a box of sweet biscuits and walks towards them, his frustration magically taking a hike. I watch his hands automatically register the food and reach out for the biscuit –
“No.” I say bluntly, reading his mind. Grandpa jumps, and finally notices me. “No, no. I was not eating it. I don’t know what’s happening to me.” He replies. Yet he stays in the kitchen, glued to the spot, muttering, “What is going to happen to me? What should I do?”
A minute later he sees a box of sweet biscuits and reaches out for what feels like the first time. Again, I repeat, “No.” He is startled – again. He says, “I was just looking. Do not worry.” With his walking stick gripped tightly in his right hand, he walks into the room where his wife lays down on the right, both sleeping on single beds, in a compact room. Grandma is drained and her legs are distressed. Soon, I will help her walk to the lounge room for dinner.
In 2012 our family’s life changed. Grandma fell off her bed, her nerves weakened and crippled, unable to walk. Grandpa got diagnosed with dementia, infuriating his mind and body. My father brought them both from India and they have been living with us since. In the beginning, it was chaos at home. I was studying full-time, and my brother and parents were working full-time.
We were all co-managing our lives and taking care of what felt like two new children. There was a point where I could not focus in class, because I was worried I would not be home in time to feed my grandparents. It was then I decided to defer my studies, and become a full-time caretaker for them. Bathing, feeding, entertaining, and exercising were my duties, and these are three core lessons I learnt along the way.
Within a week it dawned on me how many times I would be answering the same questions for my grandparents. Assuring my Grandma, “We will exercise today,” giving a very frequent update of the time, helping Grandpa realise he is not allowed to have any more sweets, explaining to Grandma why she cannot walk, explaining to Grandpa that Grandma can’t walk anymore, and so on. Knowing what they will ask, and knowing I can either choose to answer for the fifth time with politeness, or lose it, was always up to me.
If I had met my Grandpa twenty years ago, I would have been faced with a very different man. There were times where he and I would argue about going to sleep and not eating sweets – but it was utterly pointless. Grandpa would forget the argument five minutes later and walk back into the kitchen searching for the next sweet, while I would be left frustrated by his lack of care and concern for – wait, what was I even thinking? The joke is on me!
Here he is trying to live his life with his physically apt, but mentally handicapped self, and any opportunity to prove a point would go out the window and boomerang back, waking me up to realise it never mattered who was right or wrong. Instead of trying to win an argument or point, it was about embracing the challenge to find a solution that helped him.
The amount of mischief my Grandpa has gotten up to, and still does in the middle of the night, boggles my mind. We child locked the fridge and pantry cupboard so he could not access the sweets and peanut butter (he loves his peanut butter), only to find out that he knew how to unlock them! I am in my bed reading a comic strip of Calvin and Hobbes, when I hear the pantry door creak. I head towards the kitchen, and stand just behind Grandpa, sneaking into the peanut butter jar. He senses a presence, and looks over the corner of his shoulder to find me watching him silently.
He is startled and immediately says, “Yes, I was just looking, that’s all,” while peanut breath was reeking from his mouth. I hold my hand out and he takes it. Just as we begin to walk to his room, he stops in his tracks and says, “No, we have to lock the door.” I raise my eyebrows. He turns and heads back to the kitchen, to child lock the pantry door we use to lock for him. He is satisfied and says, “Yes that’s good. Let’s go now.” I’m conflicted. Should I be happy that he mentally figured out how to open the doors, or concerned for a tighter security on our food?
Since my one year as a caretaker, Grandma’s memory has become foggy and Grandpa has become fragile. They both barely recall the year I took care of them, but they don’t need to. They have given me lessons that I have kept in the pockets of my mind, always within reach to remind me of what matters most in life.