This post from the Nyoho Zen blog really struck me. Especially the opening story.
My grandmother — we called her Oma — struggled with Alzheimer’s before passing away a few years ago. One evening after dinner, during her last Christmas visit with our family, we were sitting around the table — Oma, my brother, Tracy, and I. Oma took a cookie from her plate, held it up, and asked, “What is it?” One of us, in the gentle way that people do, said, “Oma, that’s a cookie.” She looked irritated. Again: “What is it?” We all glanced at each other around the table. This was awkward. This time, one of us started to explain how a cookie is made. “Well, there’s flour, and egg, and this one has chocolate chips.” Then this 90-plus-year-old woman, who in her lifetime had probably baked about 80,000 cookies, shot us all a very lucid, fiery look, as if we were all disappointments. “I know how to make them,” she said. She held up the cookie again. “What IS it?”
And so the four of us found ourselves staring in earnest at a cookie in an old, shaking hand, really unsure of the answer. What was she asking us? We all looked hard at that cookie and said, “Wow, Oma, I don’t know.” That was how we left it.
The author goes on to talk about koans, and the ways in which a lot of folks these days like to toss around big phrases and ideas, but seem to lack a sincere desire to help others, or be of service to what I'd call "our mutual awakening." One thing I've noticed for myself is that I don't leave as many comments about dharma online anymore. I'm less inclined to spend a lot of effort on debates, especially ones filled with heady, intellectual big shotting. One discussion I did recently participate in ended up producing some really interesting stuff. It also included a rather stereotypical, huffy exit from an older, and I'm assuming white male, who was tossing his weight around in ways that felt exactly like what Koun (from the Nyoho blog) described on folks being insincere about koan study.
Anyway, back to the story above, Oma's lucidity reminds me of my grandfather, who also had Alzheimer's. There's something almost time shattering about life with Alzheimer's. On a visit to my grandparent's place towards the end of his life, I remember waking early one morning and coming out to see grandpa in his chair. He'd been mostly gone the day before, but as I stepped into the living room that morning, he looked me straight in the eyes and said "Morning, Nathan. How's it going?" I was a bit startled, since he hadn't really remembered who I was the entire week we'd been there. We went on to have what felt like a "normal" conversation. Talking about the birds outside. Food. Something about an old friend of his that lived down the road. Not an hour later, the rest of the family was up, and eating breakfast together. And the "normal" was replaced by the new normal of don't remember anything.
Moments like that made me question the entire narrative I had about the past. And memory. And time. I have had a few similar experiences during meditation, but for some reason, the shifting in the flesh and blood of my grandfather seemed more startling.
I don't know what Oma was like as a person before Alzheimer's, but it sounds like this fierce questioning about the cookie was a surprise for the author and his/her siblings.
Who is this person? What happened to the person I knew? If this is true, then what does it mean to be "a person" in the first place?
We seem to both hold together in certain ways, and also fall apart - at the same time. Sometimes, the falling apart is drastic, other times it's barely noticeable. But the sense of self most of us cling to really isn't what we are. And that's both liberating and scary. Don't you think?