to be seen


{Image is a photo of me, Luau and Katie with my Grandmother at her 85th birthday party, December, 2004.}


Her words have haunted me for days.

It wasn’t the nightmare so much, as terrifying as it must have been, as what it represented.

He tried to kidnap me.

Those were the first words that my grandmother spoke when we walked into the room after leaving for lunch and coming back to find her sleeping.

“He tried to kidnap me,” she said.

I kissed her forehead and took her hand. “That sounds awful,” I said, “You’re safe now.”

“He forced me into the elevator,” she said. “It was terrifying.”

Katie looked at me with wide eyes. I mouthed, “It’s okay.”

“Tell me more, Grandma,” I said. “Who was the man?”

“I don’t know,” she said, clearly perturbed. “He tried to force me into the car. I will NOT go to Manhattan, Jessie.”

“No, Grandma,” I said. “I promise that you don’t have to go to Manhattan.” I tightened my grip on her hand. “I promise.”

She turned her head and looked up at me plaintively, her watery blue eyes opening ever so slightly. “I don’t?” she asked.

“You don’t,” I said. “I promise.”

I asked Katie to go find a chair for me so that I could sit down next to the bed. She scurried out into the hallway without a word.

“I’m so angry at those women,” my grandmother said when we were alone.

“Which women?” I asked.

“The women,” she said again, her face now contorted into a mask of anger, “I was shouting to them, Jessie, begging for them to help me and they ignored me. They acted like they didn’t see me. I was shouting to them to help me and THEY DIDN’T SEE ME.”

Katie came back with a chair and I slid into it, still holding on to my grandmother’s hand, making sure she knew I was there.

“That sounds awful,” I said.

“It was,” she said, shaking her head as if trying to rid it of the memory. “They didn’t see me. How could they not see me?”

“Was this something that happened here, Grandma?” I asked, “or a long time ago?”

“It was the women here,” she said. “Right here. The man was many years ago, before … ”

Her words trailed off as she folded inward.

Time and place have become elusive. Sleep and dreams intermingle with conversations that weave in and out of years of accumulated memories. It becomes harder and harder to follow. And harder and harder to live.

I might have dismissed what I could have called her ramblings. But Brooke has taught me to listen beyond words. To take the threads my grandmother offers and to bind them together. I owe her that. To always remember that every thread matters as we work together to discover the tapestry of their meaning. Words do not come easily anymore. Brooke has helped me see how precious that makes each and every one. None, not one, is disposable.

“They didn’t see me,” she said.

Three days later, the words still echo in my ears.

They didn’t see me.

A personal care nurse came into the room to check on Grandma.

The nurses are lovely here. They are professional, caring, diligent. There is no question that the residents of the facility are always well cared for.

“Hello, June! You taking a rest?” she said in a just slightly too loud sing-song. With a cartoonish frown she added, “I heard you weren’t feeling so great today.”

“No,” my grandmother said in response.

I asked the nurse to come back in a while to help her get ready for dinner. I tried to explain that she had what appears to have been a terrifying dream. “Oh no!” the nurse said in her sing-song. “Be happy!” she added, as though it were that simple. “Look at this beautiful family who loves you. Be happy!’ She left with a smile, promising to come back soon.

Their interaction. The sing-song voice. The tone you would take with a toddler. There are no monsters under the bed, ya silly goose. Now get some sleep.

My grandmother is not a toddler. She is a 94 year-old woman who has lived a hell of a life. She’s seen wars begin and end and begin anew. She has buried her parents, her husband, every one of her siblings. She has raised and supported and disciplined and nurtured and loved three generations of people who love her so much in return that it hurts. She has a history and a family and successes and regrets and love and loss and joy and, in short, an internal world of memory and accomplishment and LIFE far richer than the stark simplicity of the single room in which she now resides might imply.

“How could they not see me?” she’d asked.

Before we left that day, I told the nurses that she’d had a terrifying dream. That she would need some reassurance that she was safe when we left. That she had some incredible stories to tell if ever they had the opportunity to sit with her and listen. To help her bind the threads of her tapestry together.

The words haunt me.

What do we see when we look at one other? A stereotype or an individual? A label or a person? A disability or a human being?

A frail old lady, drifting in and out of the present, or a woman who has lived her life in a way that most of us can only hope to live our own and who deserves not just the love and respect and care of those around her, but to be seen?

What a world it might be if we could always remember to choose the latter.


I love you so much, Grandma.

And so very many of us see you. I promise.





14 thoughts on “to be seen

  1. This is such a painful piece to read. I’m sorry your Grandma was experiencing such angst and I’m sorry, too, that you’re left with that memory.

    Love you,

  2. I got the chills reading this.
    All of this – listening to words, behavior is communication, not dismissing someone just because of their age/diagnosis/state of mind – all of this is important to remember as life lessons.
    Thank you for sharing this and sharing your Grandma with us.

  3. Thank you for sharing your grandma with us…she sounds like an amazing woman who deserves to be seen…I only wish I had my Nana longer, because I would have loved an opportunity to tell her that, she too, was seen and appreciated. It’s just so important!

  4. This brings me back to when my own grandmother was in a nursing home… The conversations that she had with my children- especially my middle daughter, we’re extraordinary. They appeared to be ram longs, in and out of consciousness, but it was more…. It always seemed like it was my daughter (who was so adept at weaving ther own scripts together from many different stories to tell her own) was the best able to follow the threads of my grandmother’s stories…. It is a gift- as hard as this time is for you, it is a gift. Hugs.

  5. My dad has dementia and getting fairly far along in it. . I’ve found both my autistic chosen prepared me for it. .. my mom is list on what to do and figuring out what he’s trying to say when the words don’t come, on patience when they do come but take a while. .. it’s my normal

  6. This is a beautiful and emotional piece. Thank you for sharing it. I agree that having a child with language difficulties can help us be better listeners. We learn to listen to behavior. To decode phrases. To let them know that we are there and hear them. See them.
    I found my experience with my autistic son helped me be more open to truly listening when my mom was dying. Sometimes we need to ignore the conventional ways of communication to listen to the more primordial ways of communication. They need to know that they have been heard and seen.

  7. I can’t even express how wonderful it is that you are there and see beyond the obvious to what really matters and even more importantly that you share it with “our” babies. That is how they learn about understanding and compassion for others.
    What great parents you both are and what great people.
    Thank you for loving my Mom as I do.

  8. Every time you write about your grandma I get chills, this piece in particular. I was insanely lucky to be close to all four of my grandparents into my twenties and beyond, I can guess how heartwrenching it must have been to hear this from her. I have no doubt she knew that she was loved, and most importantly safe, in that moment, and she got that gift from you and Katie. Beautiful writing, glad you shared this experience with us.

  9. My grandparents moved to a retirement community in the late 80s. We would go and visit, dine in the large dining hall, attend vespers under the trees with the other residents. I remember there was a man with no arms. He was well over 6 feet tall and used a fork with his foot. My grandparents amazing neighbors taught me that the elderly are every bit as important and interesting as people my own age. The staff that worked there never spoke down to them, you could actually see that they were soaking up the wisdom of their charges. I am so grateful for those years that have allowed me to continue seeing people.

    This was so beautiful. I hope that you both find the thread that allows for her to feel safe.

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