My grandfather did not generally say wise grandfatherly things. He lived with us in my midteens, after my grandmother died. And we lived with his dementia.
When he was at a good place he would tell us disjointed but funny stories from his youth. On a bad day he would accuse us of stealing his teeth.
As anyone who has lived with this kind of impairment among loved ones knows, there isn’t much romance to it. I had only the slightest memory of him before dementia, so I took him as he was. It was a daily heartbreak for my mother, who had to treat a father like a child.
He died when I was in college, and it bothers me that I do not think of him very much.
Until the other day. A religious was describing the recent death of a Sister of the Holy Family of Nazareth. Born in 1919 in Pittsburgh, she was one of 10 children of George and Josephine Sokolowski.
She became Sister Mary Mirabilis of the Eucharistic Heart of Mary. She taught elementary and junior high school in Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania, served in parish ministry and senior living, taught Spanish and the arts before retiring to Holy Family Manor in Pittsburgh nine years ago.
Along the way, she had become Sister Mira. She also graduated from college and had a master’s degree.
At some point, things began to slip. She suffered from dementia and all that comes with it.
My grandfather’s dementia showed itself in stories — many off-color — angry outbursts at all or nothing, teasing my little brother and running away so the cops could bring him home. He liked that.
Sister Mira’s dementia showed itself differently.
Sister Mira engaged in compliments loudly bestowed at inappropriate times. When a bishop came to give a talk, the quiet was broken by Sister Mira’s shout that “You carry yourself so well!”
She dropped these compliments like bombs from an aircraft. “You are so beautiful!” she would say as a person entered chapel. “You are so elegant!” or simply “I love you!”
Most of us have a bit of trouble accepting any compliments. Imagine when they are called out to us from across a silent room gathered in prayer.
She would also sing her favorite song just about whenever it felt like coming out:
You are my sunshine,
My only sunshine.
You make me happy
When skies are grey
You’ll never know dear,
How much I love you.
Please don’t take my sunshine away.
Sister Mira’s blurting accolades resulted usually in embarrassment, sometimes in humor, too often in a struggle to hold down the annoyance. Carefully seeded compliments are nice. Buried land mines that unexpectedly explode are something else altogether.
But after she died in February, the reflection began. As the sister who told us her story explained: “I wondered if something more was happening beside the obvious loss of cognitive ability. I wondered if that somewhere along that 75 years of surrendering her life to God as a religious, God had just taken that offering to an unexpected height, expressing so boldly what God has been wanting to tell us all along: I love you.”
Attending her funeral were those who remembered her from days gone by, and those who only knew her from a 1939 song or a bellowed compliment. As it should be for a dementia-ridden ninety-something religious who had continued to touch the lives of all those around her.
If we are willing, God keeps using us until we are used up. Even if the rest of us don’t understand that part of the story until the sunshine goes away.
Robert P. Lockwood writes from Pennsylvania.