My grandfather lived a long life, well into his eighties. In his later years, he was caught in the grip of full-blown Parkinson’s dementia, and doctors suspected Alzheimer’s disease. He didn’t recognize people he had known all his life. He generally couldn’t hold a conversation, not even a snippet of one. Toward the end, he simply was not the same Grandpa Bill that I had known as a child. Those more recent memories are perhaps the most vivid, but I try to treasure the older memories as more representative of whom I refer to when I talk about Grandpa Bill.
The funeral was hard, just as it had been for Grandma Deanie (a quick descent following stroke) and just as it would be later for Grandma Etta (Alzheimer’s again). I had to face the reality that I would never see these people again, that all I had left were the memories.
My mom, Bill’s daughter, is an ardent Christian and strongly convinced she will see her dad again in Heaven. Being convinced of that fact doesn’t make everything better for her – she took it all so hard – but it means that she can wait for a time when she’ll be with him again, for eternity, along with all the other relatives who’ve died or will die. I can tell it’s a comforting thought to her, as it is to most everyone who believes in a Heaven.
In the famous song ‘Imagine’, John Lennon asked us to imagine there’s no Heaven – it’s easy if you try, he said. What’s long been more difficulty for me is imagining that there is a Heaven.
How would it work, I wonder? Which Grandpa Bill is in Heaven? The most recent version, with dementia and sadness and confusion? Surely not, if Heaven is the wonderful place it’s supposed to be. So perhaps an earlier instantiation of him? But if a younger Bill is in Heaven, then we’re deprived of the memories and personal development (for better or worse) that happened in all those intervening years. We’re faced with the opposite problem: again it doesn’t feel like the Grandpa Bill I remember from childhood, if he’s just a young man who hasn’t had a fraction of the life experience that older fellow had.