“Ik ben bang,” my Oma whispered to me. Her hands were shaking and her watery eyes were looking deep into mine.
“Ik ben bang,” she said again. “I’m scared.”
“It’s okay, Oma. You are okay. I’m with you. Don’t be scared.”
She didn’t know who I was. My aunt had tried to explain me to her, but she didn’t know who my aunt was either. She just looked at me with a sad expression on her face.
“Mama,” she whimpered. “Ik ben bang.”
Tears welled in my eyes and spilled over but I tried to hold her gaze and smile. I clasped her soft hand in mine. Her skin felt like tissue paper.
I told her that she was a wonderful Oma and I loved her. That when I was little, I’d climb into her bed very early in the morning, and snuggle. That I loved opening the massive curtains on the pulley in her front room, and eating mint slice biscuits with milo before bed.
She just looked at me blankly and asked, “when am I going home?”
“Good question, Oma.”
We were sitting in the common area of the Dementia ward at a table with five other elderly people who also didn’t know who they were, and I felt self-conscious and unsure of how speak to the woman I’d adored my whole life. I wanted to tell my Oma her story. I wanted her to know how amazing and wonderful she is; to tell her about battles she’d fought and won, of struggles she’d overcome, and of the lifetime of love that she had poured out on her ten children and forty grandchildren. I wanted to fill her with courage.
Her hands shook. I bit my lip and looked into her eyes.
I remembered a day we sat around a different table, and those eyes were brighter and she was fearless and wise. I was 19 years old, we had a rare moment alone to drink tea and chat, and she had asked how things were going with my boyfriend. I had told her I wasn’t sure if it was going to work out. It must have made her sentimental, because she began to tell me a story…
She had been married in September 1945, just months after the war had ended, in Bergen op Zoom in the Netherlands. She was just one month off turning twenty and her parents did not attend the wedding as they did not approve of her marine fiancé, Matt.
After the wedding, they moved in with her new parents-in-law and her husband’s siblings; four brothers and a sister. His family lived in a single room home that had a small attic. The whole family slept together in the one room which had a small partition so the parents could sleep separately.
“We spent our first night as a married couple there,” she told me.
“What, in the room with all his family?” I laughed.
She told me that her mother in law, Micke, had made everyone else sleep up in the attic for the night. Matt and Kitty, my Oma, were given the parent’s bed for the night.
“How awkward, Oma!” I said.
“It wasn’t so bad,” she said. “Opa’s mum put a board over the manhole and a big brick on top. She said she wouldn’t move the brick until the morning.”
I knew as she was telling me that it was a precious recollection and I was privileged to hear. I wanted to commit it to my memory, and forever hold it with me…
I left the nursing home feeling melancholy and reflective. I wish my Oma knew who she was.
Who are we when our body is strong but our mind has forgotten?
How do I best love my grandmother now?