“That’s us, darling, isn’t it?” said Milly, my 91-year-old grandmother, as we snapped a selfie in her garden. I was visiting her Cornish fishing village for the first time in more than two years (my heart!), and although her mind was foggy, her warm and gentle personality shone right through.
The day before, my dad and I had burst through the door of her yellow house, lugging our suitcases, thrilled to have arrived after an overnight flight and the five-hour drive from the airport. My aunt Lulu lives with my grandmother and takes beautiful care of her; they hugged us and offered tea and cake. I quickly realized, however, that my grandmother wasn’t sure who we were — she thought my dad was her brother, Donald, and she affectionately referred to me as “the girl.”
During the week, Milly’s mind seemed sharper in the mornings. She drank coffee and watched the Chelsea Flower Show on television. She listened to classical guitar on the radio. A repair guy came by to fix something. “Nice to meet you, mate,” she said.
Around lunchtime, she started asking questions. “Whose house is this?” she said one day, looking around at family photographs and embroidered pillows. It’s yours, Milly, I told her. “Oh! Well, it’s a lovely house,” she replied, seeming unconvinced.
In the afternoons, she’d often fall into an endearing five-minute loop. Sitting outside, she’d admire the honeysuckle and point out an orange ferry puttering back and forth across the harbor. A few minutes later, she’d do the same. Look at the honeysuckle, look at the ferry. The honeysuckle, the ferry. Small pleasures, simple delights.
One day, I sat outside scooping ripe avocados out of their peels, and she couldn’t believe my prowess. “However are you doing that?” she asked me, peering across the wooden table. “Aren’t you clever, darling? Lulu, look! She is so good at this, isn’t she?”
Milly’s practice of finding pleasure in small things — tea, flowers, guitar — reminded me of a Ted talk by palliative medicine physician B.J. Miller.
He described being an in-patient at a burn center: “One night, it began to snow outside. I remember my nurses complaining about driving through it. And there was no window in my room, but it was great to just imagine it coming down all sticky. Next day, one of my nurses smuggled in a snowball for me. She brought it in to the unit. I cannot tell you the rapture I felt holding that in my hand, and the coldness dripping onto my burning skin; the miracle of it all, the fascination as I watched it melt and turn into water. In that moment, just being any part of this planet in this universe mattered more to me than whether I lived or died. That little snowball packed all the inspiration I needed to both try to live and be okay if I did not.”
Decades later, while running a hospice center, Miller saw again how much sensual gratification means to people: “Probably the most poignant room in the Zen Hospice guest house is our kitchen, which is a little strange when you realize that so many of our residents can eat very little, if anything at all… One of the most tried and true interventions we know of, is to bake cookies. As long as we have our senses — even just one — we have at least the possibility of accessing what makes us feel human, connected. Imagine the ripples of this notion for the millions of people living and dying with dementia. Primal sensorial delights that say the things we don’t have words for, impulses that make us stay present — no need for a past or a future.”
A few days later, Milly and I shared an exchange that I’ll never forget. While sitting on the garden bench, she asked about her husband, who had died 15 years ago. “Where’s Paulo?” she wondered. “He isn’t here very often.” I took her hand; “I think he died, Milly.” As she gazed over the boats and honeysuckle, her eyes filled with tears.
She finally said, “Oh, did he? That’s very sad, isn’t it.”
“It is very sad,” I told her. “But he was at home, and he was comfortable, and you were with him, and he felt very loved.”
“Well, that’s the most important thing, isn’t it?” she said. “To feel loved.”
Our last afternoon, before we left, Lulu and Milly read from a poetry book in the garden. Eight decades earlier, Milly had memorized poetry as her schoolwork, and she was still able to recite long verses, including Shakespeare’s All the World’s a Stage.
- All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages. At first the infant,
Mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms;
And then the whining school-boy, with his satchel
And shining morning face, creeping like snail
Unwillingly to school. And then the lover,
Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad
Made to his mistress’ eyebrow. Then a soldier,
Full of strange oaths, and bearded like the pard,
Jealous in honour, sudden and quick in quarrel,
Seeking the bubble reputation
Even in the cannon’s mouth. And then the justice,
In fair round belly with good capon lin’d,
With eyes severe and beard of formal cut,
Full of wise saws and modern instances;
And so he plays his part. The sixth age shifts
Into the lean and slipper’d pantaloon,
With spectacles on nose and pouch on side;
His youthful hose, well sav’d, a world too wide
For his shrunk shank; and his big manly voice,
Turning again toward childish treble, pipes
And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion;
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.