My maternal grandfather was Thomas W. Durnin, an attorney with a distinguished practice and a successful local political career in Carbon County, Pennsylvania. I loved him dearly — he was a smart, sensitive and warm fellow with great insight and great wit. One day, when I was a teenager, I noticed during one of his regular visits that those qualities didn’t seem to shine in him as brightly as they once did. Then he became unexpectedly irritable at times, and nobody could understand why.
Years before, his wife Marie, my grandmother, was hit with a massive stroke that left her in a semi-vegetative state. She spent the last seven years of her life in a nursing home in Weatherly, Pa. As far as I can remember, she stayed in a good facility with kind and professional staff who took good care of her. Her condition never improved, and my grandfather visited her every single day. He would talk to her, hoping that somewhere inside her body, his wife was listening to him, knowing that he had not forgotten her, nor would he ever.
Until the day that he did.
A few years after my grandmother died, my grandfather had joined my family on a Christmas cruise, and during dinner one night, he became markedly disoriented and agitated. As my mom tried to figure out what was wrong, he asked my mother, “Where’s Marie?” There was a moment of stunned silence at the table before my mother had to inform her own father that her mother, and his wife was, in fact, gone. The news hit my grandfather like it was the first time. At that point, he was wheeled to the infirmary where he swiftly regained his composure, quietly humiliated that he had had a medical situation in front of so many strangers.