The problem with not knowing what you don't know

My Grandmother, Joan Coppen, born 1921. Picture taken July 2015.

My Grandmother, Joan Coppen, born 1921. Picture taken July 2015.

This year my Grandmother turns 95. Since October 2015 she has experienced a rapid decline in physical and mental health. In the last two years there have been adjustments that have shaken my Grandma to the core. I have witnessed her wrestle with age, change and human mortality. This is what I have learned from these happy, challenging, frustrating and sad days.

A car, help, microwave and a care home — 4 examples from Grandma

After an extensive battle, my grandmother finally gave up driving in 2010. Of course, she could not imagine life without the freedom her car gave. But when she got to know Dave, a wonderful gentleman who patiently ferried around all the local oldies, Grandma decided it wasn't too bad after-all.

At the time of the battle, my Grandmother did not know what she did not know.

There came a time when we had to introduce help at home. The idea of strangers (initially) coming in to provide a little home help, errand support and companionship disgusted Grandma. But after kicking and screaming into this new phase, Grandma made treasured friends in Pat, Teresa and Alison. At the time of the battle, my Grandmother did not know what she did not know. 

As time ticked cruelly on, we figured there were gadgets that would make Grandma's life easier and better. Each was a series of battles, but one memory stands out.

Grandma was a woman of extreme discipline. She ate at specific times and even had tea and coffee at precise times! This proved too difficult for our school, work and life schedules, and especially our ‘Zambian time’ family culture.

So for many years Grandma ate a portion of our cooked supper the next day. She would reheat the meal in the small kitchen in her part of the house. When standing at the cooker became too taxing, we knew the answer was the simplest of microwaves. But Grandma said there was no space in her little kitchen and down right refused. 

One day, my husband and I gave up trying to reason with her. We bought and fitted a microwave without her knowing. When I told her she hadn't noticed the microwave that had been in her kitchen for a few days, she rather begrudgingly let me show her how to use it.

Around the same time, Grandma started experiencing pain. We showed her how soothing heat pads could be warmed in the microwave. And, 'Ding'! ... Ding! Ding! Ding! Months later, having completely forgotten the extremely frustrating battle she put up against the microwave, Grandma said, 'What a marvellous invention it is...'!

In fact, there is something I love to do on Southwold Pier — that is to read the plaques that are placed all the way round it. My husband and I will return one day and place a plaque in Grandma's honour. It will say, 'To Grandma Ding, the lady who discovered a microwave, 'a marvellous invention', aged 94'. At the time of the battle, my Grandmother did not know what she did not know. 

The most epic and distressing battle came most recently in January 2016. Grandma's medical, mental and quality of life needs meant she needed to go into a care home. 

This battle was ugly, raw and emotional for our family, but especially for Grandma. She moved in to the home on 27th January, and the bad days rolled into seemingly long weeks. We questioned what we had done.

But then, Grandma started making friends with other residents and the team of fantastic carers. One day she had a new story to tell me. She had been gardening! Then another story, and another. Pancake making for pancake day, reminiscing for Valentine's day, bingo for fun and a soothing hot bath that she has not been able to have for man many years... It turns out a good quality home is kitted out with equipment and ideas that can make old joys happen. At the time of the battle, my Grandmother did not know what she did not know.

When I remember Grandma Ding I will remember this conundrum and be grateful

Although there are probably other factors that influenced Grandma's behaviour pattern (like age and personality traits), it became so starkly visible to me that I am carefully considering the problem and am grateful for the lesson.

If we don’t know what we don’t know, are we actually unable to conceptualise the true possibilities of life?

If we don't know what we don't know, what are we to do? How are we to move forward in the direction that will serve us best? When we do, by some miracle, understand a fragment of the possibilities, does fear of the unknown send us scurrying back to the supposed 'safety' of our comfort zones?

The truth is, I don't yet know the answers to these questions. But I do have some notes to self: 

  • Read, observe and listen for clues about what I do not know
  • Always push out of my comfort zone — feel the fear and do it anyway
  • Believe I can do, have and be anything
  • Be open minded
  • Imagine life as it could be
  • Carefully assess pros and cons
  • Trust in God