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10 Second Photo

As many of you know by now, my Grandma passed away last week.  She had severe Alzheimer’s, so it was an odd relief. I didn’t attend St. Andrew’s, but instead decided to expand on the story I told about Grandma at the service.  I’ll be in warm weather for the next two Sundays, so no updates here (but there will be for The Film Rumble Podcast).  Instead, donate to help the victims of the Haiti earthquake. Or text ‘HAITI’ to 990999 to make a $10 dollar donation to the Red Cross efforts (your carrier doesn’t take a cut, everything goes to the relief effort, however, Sprint is charging normal SMS rates).  Remember, donate money not materials, it’s a million times more helpful and useful.

Before Grandma was put into a nursing home, we each had to take turns watching her.  She had Alzheimer’s and she couldn’t be left alone.  Not that she would’ve intentionally burned the house down, but leaving the oven on, the hair curler plugged in, or messing with the breaker box and forgetting about it 10-seconds later wasn’t out of the question.  So, we’d go and sit with her.  Read a book, watch some TV—but nothing more complicated than the news or sketch comedy if you could help it, she’d get angry if she couldn’t remember what was going on—or do homework.  Sometimes you’d talk to Grandma, but it was really Grandma talking to herself.  Conversations with Grandma reset every few minutes, and you’d have to start from scratch.  They’d always trail off, or abruptly switch topics.

One day, Grandma had found some old photographs.  These ranged from pictures of my Dad and his siblings in elementary school to pictures of Grandma and her siblings growing up in Kentucky.  These stack of old photographs laid on the table in front of us, and Grandma picked them up, and started to tell me the stories of each photograph.  And not just, “this is your Dad in school” or “this is me growing up in Kentucky” but detailed stories of the day it was taken, the weather in Kentucky, the attitude of the subjects, the difficulties in getting people to sit still, and what they had for dinner.  For a woman who was convinced that I had a brother named Chris, the stories were impressive.  The attention to details, the funny anecdotes, and the slight laugh as she told the stories of how difficult my Dad and Uncle Timmy where in getting ready for school, all the detail built a wonderful family history.

I took the pictures from her, flipped through the stack for 10 seconds, and then handed them back.  She smiled, her face lit up, as she turned to me and told the stories of each photograph.  And this time, everything changed.

My Dad became Uncle Timmy.

The picture of her and siblings in Kentucky became pictures of her Dad and his siblings growing up in Kentucky.

Pictures of me became pictures of Brett.

The kid across the street became a family member, a cousin.

She couldn’t even identify the people in the picture of her and my Papa.

No story stayed the same.  No photograph even had similar participants or stories attached.  Everything changed.  The carefully crafted world changed in 10-seconds.  My wonderful family history was reduced to a sham.  In 10-seconds, I went from thinking I should write these downs—‘cause who knows the next time she’ll be this lucid—to thinking why would I write down someone’s senile ramblings?  Watching your Grandma’s brain degrade in front of you hurts at any age.  And like most hurt people, I got frustrated, and like most frustrated people, I angrily added my own comments.

I told her that wasn’t Uncle Timmy—she just said it was Dad!  That wasn’t her Dad and his siblings; it was her and her siblings.  That it wasn’t Brett, it was me.  And no, the people she couldn’t identify were actually her and my Papa.  This, to no surprise, didn’t go over well.  She got angry. I got angry.  She pointed out she was there, and knew who was who—especially in her own family.  I realized the futility (and outright meanness) in fighting with an Alzheimer’s patient.  And I asked to see the pictures, and held onto the stack as she watched the 5 o’clock news.  I flipped through the pictures for 10 seconds, and handed them back to her.

“Hey Grandma, who’s in the pictures?”

She smiled, her face lit up, as she turned to me and told the stories of each photograph.  And this time, everything changed.

Uncle Timmy switched back to Dad.

Her father and his sibling became her mother and her siblings.

Brett became Brett.

The kid across the street became Aunt Susie.

And she and Papa became her and Papa.

And this time, I just listened.

The stories became more vibrant, more detailed, and more poignant.  Sometimes the handwriting on the back was wrong; sometimes it helped the story along.  I realized as she told the stories, the point wasn’t the photographs.  The point was the stories.  When I tell this story people always ask, “how can you trust what she said?”  For the same reason I can trust any other story.  Every true story is inherently fiction.  It’s told from the perspective of the storyteller, and we always have an agenda.  But the point of a story doesn’t hinge on the veracity of the facts, but the emotions of the story.

I learned the difficulty of raising 4 kids after a divorce, and how my Dad and Uncle Timmy were a pain to get ready for school.  I learned about the beauty of the hills of Kentucky, and growing up when your father was a coal miner.  I learned about my family.  The details might be hazy, but in a story, details just deliver the emotions.

And after she was done, I’d take away the photos, flip through the stack for 10 seconds, and hand them back.  She’d light up and tell the stories, and everything would change.  I learned not give up on people, if you hang in there long enough they’ll show you their good side, but if you shut them down, you’ll just be dealing with your antagonism and miss opportunities.  I learned that if you have a story worth telling, you have a life worth living.  And it doesn’t matter how you get there, just that you found it.

And then after she was done, I’d flip through the stack for 10 seconds, and hand them back.  She’d light up, and we’d start all over again.  And everything changed.

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