Late last spring, I had one of those days where I felt an intense urge to organize my life. Part of my to-do list was to sort through my travel photos from the past year, which is a seemingly never-ending task in this glorious age of the camera phone. It’s not impossible, though. Current technology is doing most of the organizing work for me because as a shameless millennial, the photos I take on my phone automatically back-up to Google Photos and the software sorts through all the faces and organizes the photos according to the subject. If you’ve ever tried it, you’ll know that the facial-recognition software has become quite advanced. It recognized my mother’s face in a photo of another photo and placed it in a category folder with all the auto-tagged pictures of her.
I found this to be extremely amusing and impressive. This was a corner of my Aunt’s house located on ancestral land where I visited last summer. You can spot the small wallet-sized photo of my mother, from around 30 years ago, on top of a pile of mementos and sentimental gifts my family had given to my grandmother, Mama Sally.
You see, my 92-year-old grandmother has dementia. It is at a point where she has trouble recognizing the people around her, especially those she has only known short-term. The memory comes and goes, but we know that inevitably her clear moments would become shorter and further apart. Last summer, I went to the Philippines for a couple of ministry engagements and also for the chance to see Mama Sally before her mind becomes wholly unable to recognize me.
Mama Sally’s first husband, my maternal grandfather, had died when my mother was still a teenager. Since then, she had remarried, moved to Australia and had survived even her second husband. As my grandmother’s physical and mental health declined, her children have had to make the difficult decision on the best place for her to spend her final years. They were hoping that bringing her back to her hometown would strengthen her old memories even if she couldn’t make new ones. So she moved back to the Philippines to live in the same small town where she was born and raised, surrounded by expansive rice fields that had and still belonged to my mother’s family since the Spanish occupation. The pile of photo albums and knickknacks in the corner of the house represented a large family who loves her and are hoping she would not forget any one of us before she would, as must be accepted, leave us.
When I first saw my grandmother again last summer, I had to resist the urge to run to her and give her a shock. The last time I “saw” her before then, I was only a year-old. I had no recollection of this prior meeting but I recognized her familiar face all the same. It’s as if I’d spent my whole life missing this person. Through the years of phone and video calls with her, as well as through my mother and my mother’s stories, I know this person. She’s always been a part of me.
As I made my approach, I could tell she did not know who I was. Her eyes betrayed her excitement in having a visitor but also the struggle to place my face in the enormous tapestry of her lifetime and memory. She has dozens of grandchildren and a handful of great-grandchildren. She was, however, the only living grandparent I had left.
So I walked calmly to her and hugged her fragile frame lightly while I let my presence become familiar. Thankfully, my cousin had brought her baby who was way more interesting and adorable than I was. I truly didn’t mind. My heart swelled at seeing my grandmother’s remarkable joy at seeing her great-granddaughter but it also ached ever so slightly at the thought that she might not be able to recognize me at all.
A few hours later, I took the chance to sit with her alone at the kitchen table and re-introduced myself. “I’m Lowela’s (my mother’s) child”, I said gently. Something clicked. For the next 15 minutes, she was lucid. She knew who I was even if she still couldn’t clearly distinguish who I am as an individual among many related to her. Let’s face it, we only truly have my mother in common. She did, however, realize that I am her granddaughter and she started to speak to me about how much she missed Lowela. She loved the idea that I had come all the way from America to see her. She couldn’t recognize me fully but she recognized that the distance I had traveled to be with her meant I was somebody who loved her very much. She thanked me profusely as I cradled her delicate hands in mine and gently kissed her paper-thin skin over and over.
“I love you”, I said.
“I love you too”, she responded with a soft voice and a smile. I know she meant it. Even if she forgets my face, I hope she will remember being so, so loved.
The next morning we spoke with my mother, Lowela, over FaceTime. Because my mother is the youngest daughter, she will always be cherished as the baby among her family. Upon seeing my mother’s face, I watched my grandmother’s face fill with happiness and longing and good memories and painful memories all at once. Having a mind in such a state meant that often, her oldest memories are the strongest and not all of them were very good. In fact, I could only hope that it isn’t her most traumatic memories that are getting clearer as everything else fades. After all, my grandmother lived through the Japanese occupation, among other horrific events. On her face, I saw that the most difficult and problematic recollections flooding her mind – unavoidable regrets she had as a parent, the loss of two husbands and one child, words that were said and left unsaid – were all fighting to push away the wonderful, treasured memories. I wondered if it’s not the little, simple, seemingly insignificant moments when we are at our happiest and most satisfied, that first gets erased.
But that’s this life, isn’t it? With great difficulty at present, we must take comfort in telling ourselves that in eternity, neither good nor bad recollections would have the power to harm us or bring us to tears. For now, all our relationships are slowly becoming memories and we could only pray that we build enough good and happy ones to keep, should God will for us to succumb to a ripe old age. For my grandmother, seeing her loved ones must bring an unstoppable ocean of memories back – all the best and worst – for that is our way of knowing and holding those we love close to us. Google will perhaps one day be better at being able to recognize the face of my mother but only my grandmother knows her own daughter. Only my grandmother raised the sweet, independent, headstrong Lowela who climbed fruit trees even when forbidden; the popular, talented, athletic girl loved by the townspeople; the angry teenager who threw innumerable fits when not allowed to leave their compound as often she wanted to. So it must be for each of her children, each a unique and precious thread in the grand weave of her life. There must be plenty of good memories in there because I know seeing her children makes her, ultimately, quite happy. The mind fails to remember but the heart never forgets. Love recognizes and remembers.
This has left me pondering on how much my own mother loves me. It makes me cringe to look back at all the painful memories I have given her so far. Some of it is so awful, we have never spoken about it since. But it’s there. The prospect of having it surface as her primary recollection of me someday makes me so sad even now. So I’m praying for grace. Grace from God, grace from my mother, and grace for my grandmother.
P.S. Last month, my mother made a rather spontaneous visit to my grandmother in the Philippines. She reports that Mama Sally is doing better. The memory loss has slowed and she had absolutely no problem in recognizing her Lowela.