When I was growing up, I spent a lot of time with my great grandfather. He’d sit in his wheelchair, his hands shaking, his body frail and bony, and his face wrinkled and pockmarked with the trials and tribulations of life. He would squint his eyes, shake his fist, and tell me,
“Hun, if you don’t have your health, you have nothing.”
As he became older and frailer, those words became his mantra. Until one day, his health failed him for the last time and he left us, finally free of his bag of bones, blissfully moving on to his next great adventure.
It would be many years before I would fully appreciate his words.
You always expect the “old people” in your life to become sick, to become frail, and to become, essentially, old. While it can be difficult to watch your loved ones become less mobile and less independent, it is not unexpected, and I hope, in my old age (should I reach it), that I can approach my loss of autonomy with humour and that I can accept the help of my family and loved ones with gratitude and grace.
Growing old, facing mortality, feeling pain – yes, they are frightening, looming shadows over youth, but we expect those days to eventually come.
What we don’t expect is for someone who is healthy, in the prime of their life, to succumb to illness.
And that expectation – to live a healthy life until old age – is precisely what has recently been shattered in my life.
A loved one – not young, but certainly not old – is slowly deteriorating. So slowly, that we barely noticed it at first. Some days, he would visit and be in a horrible mood, or seem strangely distracted, or be unusually silent. But we chalked it up to moodiness, or a mid-life crisis. Eventually, his personality changed enough that the differences were impossible to ignore. Mental illness seemed likely. He stopped showing emotions, stopped displaying affection. His work, which he had always enjoyed, was now a source of significant stress and negativity to him.
Was it depression? Bipolar? Suicidal thoughts? PTSD? Schizophrenia?
Our minds never considered the possibility of dementia, until his wife revealed his diagnosis.
After that day, his illness progressed rapidly – far too rapidly.
His license was taken away. He took leave from his job. He no longer knew how to control his temper, and he would fly into violent, frightening rages at the smallest of provocations. He repeated sentences an endless number of times. He began to swear, and then began to hit things. He became obsessed with food. He became terrified of crowds.
His entire personality changed.
But he still remembers us. Things aren’t all bad. He has, adorably, developed a child-like fascination with the weather. He is in awe of ordinary, beautiful things, like flowers, or bugs … things that the rest of us have forgotten how to appreciate.
But it is hard.
It is hard to watch someone you love change. It is hard to watch them suffer violent emotional upheavals, terrors, and misunderstandings due to the deteriorating abilities of their mind.
It is terrifying to think that one day soon, he will no longer remember who we are. That his life will be filled with strange people, strange devices, strange sights, and strange sounds that he will no longer be able to recognize or understand.
But even though I have gained a greater appreciation and understanding of my great-grandfather’s mantra, I have found that I disagree entirely with him.
Even if you don’t have your health, you can still appreciate the beauty of nature. Even if you don’t have your health, you can still enjoy music. Even if you don’t have your health, you can still smile and feel companionship. Even if you don’t have your health, you can still be in awe of the stars. Even if you don’t have your health, you can still feel comfortable and safe in your home.
And even once you can no longer do any of those things, you still have the love, devotion, and care of your family.
Illness and disease can never take our love away from you.
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This post was inspired by this week’s Writing Challenge: Great Expectations.