I’ve been struggling to put this post together for a week. Part of the difficulty comes from intense emotions, or what my friends might call too many feels. The other problem is multi-layered regret: regret that I didn’t do this sooner, regret that I will never know all the stories and details that could have added to the tale, and regret that I allow my cramped and stifled brain to push me away from my keyboard anytime writing gets too hard. But this is important and I will get this together tonight if it kills me – okay, more likely makes me look like a red-nosed, swollen-eyed, mushy middle-aged woman.
As many of my friends know, my maternal grandmother has Alzheimer’s disease. She was officially diagnosed around five years ago, but it was clear to the family what the problem was long before that. We had watched her mother suffer through it until she passed in 1992, and two of her older sisters had already been diagnosed with it. She was fortunate that she still has my grandfather there to care for her, but as he is three years older than her, his health and mental faculties have been in a steady decline for a number of years. There have been repeated attempts on the parts of my mom and her siblings to get their parents moved into a senior community that has “memory care” facilities, but my grandfather – stubborn, proud and frugal as he has always been – always put the brakes on the move at the last minute.
That has changed now. We aren’t even sure he’s able to care for himself anymore, let alone my grandmother. My aunts and uncles have pitched in along with my parents to help as much as possible. The men help by doing little repairs around the house and mowing the grass. The ladies handle the paperwork and the ins and outs of doctor’s visits, dealing with the insurance company and shopping for their mom’s clothes. My mom makes a point of going over at least one day a week to play Yahtzee with my grandma to help keep her mind stimulated at least a little bit. But the time has come for the family to accept that we are not able to take care of them and maintain our own health and sanity. My mother comes home frequently all frazzled and frustrated from her visits, and I can’t imagine it is any easier on my aunts and uncles.
And what does this all mean to me? It’s pretty simple – my grandmother is the one person I know without a doubt loves me no matter how badly I mess up. The horrible way I used to yell and scream at her over my (not yet realized) frustration at my parents for farming me out to her every summer? She would punish me appropriately, if a little reluctantly, and then hug me and tell me she loved me no matter what I said to her. Flunked out of my freshman year of college? Maybe it didn’t bother her as much as my parents because she never made it out of middle school – she had been recruited to work in her dad’s general store before she finished the eighth grade. My marriage failed? Not so much as an eye blink, which was a refreshing change from the intense sense of judgment I felt from my sincerely religious family. The depression that kept me a virtual prisoner in my home for nearly two years? She only wanted to know how she could help and when I might come and sit with her for a while.
What matters most to me is what I learned from her, even if it has taken me the better part of four decades to figure it out. She taught me how to love the people that matter to me. It doesn’t always have to involve words. Her love for me was there in every bowl of macaroni and cheese, plate of sliced tomatoes, and dinner of salmon patties and fried potatoes she fixed for me. It was evident there on her couch as she taught me how to play rummy and Yahtzee while her “stories” – those lovely slices of daily melodrama we call soaps – droned on in the background. Every stitch in a Barbie skirt, or a matching one for me, thrummed with her love. The yarn critters she made still feel like love, even after years packed away in boxes. There isn’t a thing my grandma ever gave me that reminds me, even a little, that I was a disappointment at times, difficult to deal with at others, and have made so many mistakes that not even I can honestly say I approve of what I’ve accomplished with my life so far. My grandma doesn’t care about any of that – she just loves me for being me.
So why is it so vital I put these words together now? She’s not dead, we’re only planning to take her to a place where people can give her more attention than our family is able to now. The problem is that in order to do that, we will have to medicate her into complacency so that she won’t fight leaving behind everything familiar to her. See, while I still see my gentle, good-natured grandmother when we visit, her disease has stripped her of most of her self-control and these days, when things aren’t going the way she wants them to, she lashes out – sometimes verbally, but occasionally physically. She has always had a stubborn streak in her, but before Alzheimer’s started slowly stealing her away from us, she could figure out why people were doing things. There is no explaining to her anymore that this move is for her benefit, and Grandpa’s too. The world is so confusing to her now she can’t stand for anything to change, let alone leave her home of the last 34 years.
And so this coming week, my mom and aunt will be taking her to be admitted to a geriatric psychiatric ward, so that they can stabilize Grandma’s medications sufficiently for her to move into the memory care unit of the senior community they and my grandfather have chosen. It is necessary, I understand that, but the realist in me knows that her already impaired mental faculties, memory in particular, will likely suffer for the stabilization process. And even then, once she is situated in her new “home,” we have been told that we won’t be allowed to see her right away, because the staff wants time to make sure she is well and truly acclimated and accepting of her new surroundings before any of us, even my grandfather, are allowed to visit. So she will likely spend weeks away from any familiar faces, any trace of her long life, surrounded by strangers who are trying to help her.
And in the end, the odds of my grandmother really being there when we are finally permitted to go see her is fairly low. It hurts to know she likely won’t recognize us anymore, or at best, that we will be permanently confused for younger versions of other relatives, most long since dead. I am glad that her needs will be met by capable and trained professionals, and that my mother won’t have to worry if her mom has been left unattended in her locked house again. But in a very real way, it feels like our weekly lunch tomorrow will be my last chance to look my grandma in the eye, tell her thank you and I love you, and know that some part of her will actually hear and understand me.
As much as my emotions have been wreaking havoc with me, I only hope that I can keep it together until we go our separate ways. If there are tears in my eyes, or if I look sad, I know her well enough to know that she’ll worry – not about herself, mind you, but about me. I know she’ll tell me to come see her soon, like she always does, and that it’s going to break my heart a lot when I promise her that I will. But I’m going to do my best this time – I already failed to say my goodbyes to one grandparent with a lingering illness, and I refuse to make that mistake again. And I will do my best to live what she has shown me. I know that I am flawed, but I will try to make sure that the people who matter to me know that they are loved – even if they are flawed too.
Update: I surprised myself at how well I did. When Grandpa was ready to leave, I went over and took both of her hands to help her stand up. She started to hug me while she was sitting, but I smiled and said, “Let me help you up first. I’m already too tall to hug you properly.” She laughed and stood up, then wrapped her arms around me. I leaned in close and just said, “I love you very, very much.” She asked her question after she told me she loves me too, and I told her I’d do my best. She even snuck back for another hug before they left. My eyes misted up a bit when my aunt hugged her for so long, doing the same thing I was, saying a last goodbye, but no one noticed. The mandatory throat lump was there as I watched Grandma, her hand on Grandpa’s arm, toddling out to the parking lot, but I feel good at least knowing she had a good lunch with her family. And I took a nap when I got home, because that sort of emotional restraint is just exhausting.