Awake from a nap in her favorite chair, my grandmother ran her fingers through her wavy white hair, looked out her window at the English Channel, and asked me what I would wish for if I had just one wish.
She often asks this, and I always answer the same way because it will make her happy — “To have Granddad back” — which usually gets her reminiscing about him. But on that day a few months ago, she shook her head, then said with a sigh: “Richard, we had our innings. Good innings. Make a wish for yourself, dear.”
I wish I knew we could have been like this sooner.
For decades I had the same kind of grandmother many people have: a money-filled birthday card in the mail; a phone call on Christmas; a pleasant little song and dance so polite and practiced that it became like the way people say “Bless you” after sneezes.
Then, about a decade ago, she began to lose her hearing precipitously. The phone calls got harder. And I noticed that if I asked what she had for lunch, she might say, “Oh, the weather has been lovely today.” So accustomed to the family’s same few questions, she seemed to recycle the same handful of answers.
Our time together was diminished. She was diminished.
This is called “grayspeak” or “elderspeak,” a shift in the way we address elders that treats them less like sages and more like toddlers or pets. We say things like, “Today was rainy. Did you see the rain?” and “Was your dinner yummy?”
It’s a bogus, tedious and stupid way to interact, so I fought it. I started to show up for her more, in person, despite her living in Dover, England, and me in New York City.