Dementia, Dickens & Donna Summer

“If he had died, it would be easier. But, he didn’t. They took him from us a piece at a time.” – Guinan on letting go

This weekend, we all lost my grandmother. The family and friends of Ada ‘Geri’ Digiorno will be spending many moments over the coming years sharing stories about her and celebrating her life. We were all tragically fortunate to have time to pregame and process ahead of time as we witnessed her ruthless decline. Dementia can get fucked right alongside cancer and people who talk in movie theaters.

Nana’s influence on me can never be understated. My earliest memories of her came on the heels of my parent’s divorce and many weekends and summers spent with her and her husband Tony (Papa). They were both still working full time so I’d often spend some idle time at the Playhouse bar, doing odd jobs like sweeping or cleaning up to earn change to sink into the bar’s jukebox. Frequent choices were The Gambler and Devo’s ‘Whip It’, but my top favorite was Donna Summer’s ‘Hot Stuff’. They bought me my own copy of the LP to go with my first record player.

“Family need not be defined merely as those with whom we share blood, but as those for whom we would give our blood.” – Charles Dickens, Nicolas Nickleby

Fast forward a few years, add in the passing of her husband, and the paths that we predict for ourselves start to become a lot less predictable. After enough of these, it can be tempting to withdraw or not become too invested because you’re always waiting for the other shoe to drop.

One of my favorite novels growing up was David Copperfield and the parallels around searching for safety and belonging at this stage in my life weren’t lost on me. As clunky and formal as Dicken’s prose can be, the theme of found family is timeless and vital to those whose lives didn’t quite go as expected. The place I could always count on being safe though was at Nana’s house. No expectations or demands. Just being present was sufficient.

We found ways to bond over the most unusual things. Star Trek for her suddenly became watchable after Whoopi Goldberg joined the cast. And Beavis & Butthead made the rotation just so she’d have some context as to what Letterman was going on about during his monologue. And no one I know laughed harder at South Park’s jabs at Mormons. Slaughtering sacred cows was our favorite pastime.

“Face it – If you weren’t related to these people, would you EVER see them again?” – Rick Reynolds

One thing she never hesitated with was to take others down a peg or help them get over themselves. As I grew older, I learned I wasn’t exempt to this either. A young 20-something high on his own ego runs his mouth often enough. When she’d had enough, she had some interesting and humorous ways to bring me down to earth. Let’s just say I’d never thought an eyeroll and an ‘Ok, Jason’ (as in Medea) would sting that much.

Before long that was just how we related to each other. The safe space of people who knew we could eviscerate each other verbally with no love lost and our relationship all the stronger for it. We would still talk current events and politics up until she really couldn’t carry on a conversation. It was always fun and she’d still even remember a lot of the in-jokes and mental models around movies and pop culture we’d built over the years.

“You gonna put me down too, John?” – Nana being Nana

Geri touched countless lives and truly is an example of a life well and fully lived. We’re going to miss you and celebrate you while we do. Love you lots. Say hi to Papa for us.