This week was one of the most difficult weeks that I’ve had to experience thus far. On October 1st, I flew home unexpectedly to spend time with my family as my Maw Maw’s battle with dementia was coming to a close. I knew that I needed to be home with her, and my Paw Paw. And I spent as much time as I could by their sides. I heard stories from her younger brother, my Uncle Al, some that I had never heard before. (One story was about how Uncle Al felt left out by some of his classmates. He asked his older sister, my Maw Maw, to take him and the other classmates that were left out to a pizza place and out bowling. She agreed, and advocated for them when the servers paid them no attention.) And while I was there, I found a box of notes that she wrote, including a letter that she started to write to all of us, but never finished.
My Maw Maw had the most beautiful handwriting, which was beautiful to see again, and she had the most impeccable memory. She knew so much about the lives of her grandchildren, from our birthdays to our best friends. Within the past 10 years, Maw Maw began to forget small details about us, like our ages, and then soon grew to forget our names and eventually forget us. Watching her memory fade was difficult, but watching her personality fade was even harder.
Dementia is a terrible disease, characterized with memory loss and a decline in language, cognitive skills, and problem solving. But with these drastic changes, also comes the loss of jokes, kindness, laughter, and the creation of new memories. As the years progressed, I missed hearing Maw Maw’s laugh, the happiness she had every Christmas helping Paw Paw get ready to become Santa Claus for her grandchildren, the times I sat with her next to the fireplace to keep warm. I missed her voice of reason and I missed her always making sure I was with a Diet Coke in hand. Maw Maw was there, but she wasn’t. And I missed her.
Some of my most fond memories of Maw Maw are from my childhood. I was her first granddaughter, and she was my Maw Maw for almost 27 years. I remember her teaching me proper hygiene (she always carried wet-ones), I remember her telling my cousin, Monika, to eat all of her food. I remember how much she loved chocolate and she always got me my favorite kind of cheese danish for breakfast when I spent the night. I had my own stuffed animal named Pinky, toothbrush in a ziplock baggie with my name on it, and pajamas in a drawer. I remember fighting over a blanket that she made my cousin, Daniel, and being the lucky grandchild to have a sleepover in her and Paw Paw’s room when we went to Hilton Head (because my family had too many kids for a standard hotel room).
Maw Maw was fierce. She was gentle. She was loving. She was always an advocate for everyone around her. She never let the cousins fight, and never was shy about telling us when we were wrong. She taught us humility, and she taught us selflessness. She welcomed everyone with open arms. She loved Louis Vuitton, Notre Dame, Hilton Head Island, all things chocolate, and her friends and family.
On Friday, October 4th, my Maw Maw passed away. She passed peacefully in her home, surrounded by family, with her husband by her side. She was 80 years old. Today was her funeral, and we celebrated her life as a family. Her children and grandchildren were all in attendance, standing by her husband of over 50 years. In the days following her passing, I stood by my Paw Paw as he ensured that each grandchild had a place at her funeral Mass and finalized the details of everything else. Some said readings, some read petitions, and some brought gifts to the altar. Paw Paw asked me to sing ‘Hail Mary, Gentle Woman’ following Communion, and while it almost brought me to tears, I was honored to sing it for her, as I did in her final days.
This afternoon, we celebrated Maw Maw’s life by gathering at a place we frequented as a family – The Hilton St. Louis Frontenac. See, my family doesn’t really cook. As a family, we spent Thanksgiving, Mother’s Day, and Easter at the hotel for probably almost 20 years. When Maw Maw began to fade further, we went to a place that could accommodate her better, but we still never cooked family meals at home. After all, Maw Maw always said, “Kitchens are for restaurants, not for houses.”
Among the notes that I found in that box, I found her list of prayers. She prayed for each of us by name, every single day. She prayed for people that she met in the elevator, people she saw from afar, neighbors down the street. And when she first became sick, she told us we were going to have to take over her prayers. So I made a copy of her prayers, and I will carry them with me every day.
A few weeks before she passed, I had some time home and I knew that I wanted to spend time with Maw Maw and Paw Paw. On Sunday, September 22nd, I watched the Cardinals beat the Cubs with Maw Maw’s hand in mind. We shared a few chips and a Diet Coke. On Sunday, September 29th, I had the chance to FaceTime my mom who was with her. I told Maw Maw about where I was and how I was, and though she didn’t say much back, she was watching my face on the screen. Maw Maw told me that I was “so smiley”. Hearing that made me tear up, happy that she could recognize a smile on my face. And when I said “I love you”, she said it back. I am so grateful for those moments with her, and the 26 years of memories before that. And I’ll forever be holding her hand, looking to her for guidance.
I am so thankful that I had my Maw Maw. And I’ll carry her in my heart every day. Mother to 5, grandmother to 14. She was incredible. I love you so much, Maw Maw. And I know you’re never far away. ♥️
Mary Claire Antoinette Pike
November 3, 1938 – October 4, 2019
XO – MC