May 18, 2016
My 92-year-old grandma went into the hospital a couple of weeks ago with a broken hip. She was moved to a rehab facility and then contracted pneumonia. When I visited her today, she was remarkably lucid, even more so than a couple of days ago. Still, I sense that she’s not really getting better and I fear that she won’t be coming back home.
But she’s not ready to die, at least that’s what she told me today. We were talking about my uncle who died over 30 years ago and I said, “You have a lot of people waiting for you.”
She replied with a sly smile, “They can wait.”
There is a type of grieving that we do when we think a person is going to die soon. The “before” type of grieving serves a purpose. It give us an outlet to express fear and dread and can even help us with acceptance. If we’re lucky, it buys us time to right wrongs and say words before they forever go unspoken. If we’re really lucky, we get to hear our beloved Grandma say, “I love you more.”
“Before” grief is different depending on the circumstances. My sister had been in and out of the hospital so many times that I knew she couldn’t take much more. I had weeks to wrap my mind around a world without her, not that it helped when the time came. Death is always unfathomable.
With my grandpa, the “before” was short because I was in denial that he was deteriorating. It happened in the space of a few hours in his hospital room, not believing until the very end that he was really dying.
This “before” time with my grandma is different altogether. She has the dreaded trifecta: broken hip, pneumonia, dementia. It should be obvious that she’s dying but each time I see her, I see my still-living and still-breathing grandma. She is dignified and relevant. She is not childlike or out of her mind. She is beautiful and beloved. She is sometimes confused and even angry but if I have to remind her who I am, she looks up at me with those gorgeous eyes and remembers. She forgets and then she remembers.
I want nothing more than to sit with her and hold her hand, a hand that looks very much like my own. I wear the promise ring that Grandpa gave her, like I wore her wedding dress 21 years ago. I have always wanted to keep her close. My only job is to honor her dignity, give her my presence and tell her I love her.
“I love you more.”
June 13, 2016
I visit Grandma in the assisted living facility she’s been moved to. This time, I take my children, Cash, 7 and Cadence, 6. Cash is the first to notice the painting on the wall.
“It says I Love You More,” he tells me.
A little nudge from God, I think.
We have to wait awhile because Grandma is taking a shower and getting dressed, during which time I answer questions like, “What’s that pad on the couch for?” and “Why are there name tags on the placemats?” When we are finally able to go to Grandma’s room, I am surprised at how nervous I am. This is the first time my kids have seen her in months and I know that she won’t remember them. I’m not even sure that she’ll know who I am.
I announce our arrival loudly, “Hi Grandma! I brought your great-grandchildren, Cash and Cadence.”
Seeing her smile never gets old. She greets us warmly as we take a seat on her bed and she begins to talk to me in conspiratorial tones about the staff member who had just helped her shower.
“She’s so bossy,” she whispers. “She thinks I can’t do anything by myself.”
The last time I saw Grandma she was still in the rehab facility. Today, she looks amazing. She’s walking as well as she had before the broken hip (hunched over with her walker and very slow, but walking nonetheless). I don’t know many 92-year-olds who can say they’ve recovered from a broken hip and pneumonia.
My kids sit quietly on the bed and stare at her, not sure what to say or do. Grandma stares back and smiles, probably not sure what to say or do. She asks their names and ages a few times and can finally understand her great-granddaughter’s name after she remembers to put her hearing aid in.
“Ah! Cadence. What an unusual name. Very pretty.”
Cadence is sporting a new, short pixie haircut and doesn’t seem bothered that her great-grandma keeps calling her a he.
“Are you making friends here Grandma?” I ask.
“No, I never leave my room. I don’t know anyone. I can’t wait to get out of this place,” she replies. She grumbles under her breath about her missing blow dryer and curling iron and how the staff can’t keep their hands off her stuff.
My dad is supposed to meet us here and then me and the kids will take him to lunch. He’s running late and I feel guilty because I keep checking the clock and my texts. My once silent and shy acting kids are starting to get frisky and I worry that they won’t last much longer.
“How about I get a picture of you and your great-grandkids?” I suggest.
“Oh no! I look horrible. Come back another time when I look better.” Grandma nervously touches her hair (which looks the same to me as it always does).
Knowing how dementia can be, I change the subject and we talk about other things.
“How about I get a picture of you and your great-grandkids?” I suggest a few minutes later.
“Of course!” she exclaims.
I can tell the kids are a little unsure of how close to get. Her frailty is obvious, even to them. I take the picture, show it to her and am rewarded by her beautiful smile.
Moments later, my dad arrives and Grandma’s face lights up like he is her favorite person in the whole world. He sits down and begins to tell us how well Grandma is doing.
“She’s making friends and is very popular. She walks around the whole place!” he tells us and Grandma nods her head in agreement because for that moment, she’s able to recall the positive experiences she’s had here.
“It feels like home!” she says.
I’m relieved that it hasn’t all been bad and I mostly want to believe the good, although I know there’s truth in everything she has said.
Dementia has robbed Grandma of the ability to reconcile what happened in the past with what is happening right now. If she’s angry at her caretakers today, she can’t remember how kind they were to her yesterday. Living only in the moment can be a kind of torture.
I think about the times in my life when I was so muddled in sadness that I had no hope and couldn’t enjoy the simplest forms of happiness. I couldn’t reconcile the joys in my past with the pain of the moment.
And the times when I was so profoundly joyful that I couldn’t imagine that pain could ever touch me again because even if it came my way, surely I’d remember this moment and send sorrow packing down the road.
We all know someone in our lives who is loving and kind to everyone else but seems to reserve their anger and judgment for only us.
And who hasn’t had a hard time believing when they’re told that the person they’ve only seen as kindhearted has been a total ass to others.
I think of all the opportunities I’ve missed to offer grace to someone because I couldn’t see or accept their many parts. I wonder how differently we’d treat each other if we remembered that we are all precious, multifaceted gems and deeply flawed.
I wouldn’t wish dementia on anyone but I appreciate this experience with Grandma. I’m grateful for whatever time we have left together, even if she doesn’t remember. I do hope that I did a good enough job of showing her how much she means to me while she could still put the pieces together but I’ll never know for sure. All I know is that I will always love her more.