For as long as I can remember Grandma has been a blur, a 4’11 tornado in an apron. Persuading her to sit down for a one on one talk was like nailing Jell-O to the wall.
When I went to her house I had to keep up with her or eat her dust. She called our visits “chat and runs.” In addition to working full time at a department store, she had my invalid grandfather and a large home with two acres of land to care for.
Hers was not a life for the weak.
Retirement didn’t slow things down much. Household chores and Grandpa-duty kept her darting to and fro like a moth courting a porch light.
“The more I do, the more that needs doing” she declared.
In the summer I helped her in the garden. Weeding, harvesting and hauling veggies up to the house wasn’t drudgery because we were did them together.
Afterward we’d sit under a big maple tree snapping green beans, shelling peas or peeling potatoes for dinner. I cherished our quiet moments.
For a little while she was all mine.
As we worked, Grandma would tell me about her childhood; tales of her family, friends, their barnyard shenanigans, hay rides, school dances. I especially enjoyed hearing about her beloved pig Billy.
"I bottle fed Billy from the time he was a tiny runt so he grew up believing I was his mother. That silly pig would walk on a leash like a dog and then pull us kids around in a cart like a horse. Did I tell you he could predict the weather? Daddy always knew a storm was brewing because Billy would be terribly upset.”
She was the most interesting person I knew.
Then a few years after Grandpa died, Grandma began to change.
It started with lost minutes that quickly progressed to lost days. She'd fix breakfast and find herself sitting upstairs on her bed hours later with no idea how she got there or what happened in between.
One morning in mid-November she clung to her street side mailbox shivering in a thin terrycloth robe, terrified as cars whizzed by. A worried neighbor helped her back into the house and called Mom.
“I’m afraid it’s Alzheimer’s” the doctor said.
Heartsick, Mom and I believed that telling Grandma would only make matters worse and perhaps hasten the inevitable.
“The doctor prescribed some new medicine that should help you with your memory” Mom chirped.
“It had better work” Grandma grumbled.
That was it, no third degree. For a woman who possessed the sleuthing skills of a blood hound she quietly and uncharacteristically accepted what she was told. She must have suspected the worst but was afraid to ask. Who could blame her?
After selling her house Grandma moved into an assisted living facility down the street from Mom. Surrounded by new friends she was off and running again, a social butterfly involved in the facility’s many activities. She planted a little garden outside her bedroom window, and even found time for romance.
"Guess what? I have a boyfriend" she said, smiling mischievously.
"Oh? Who might that be?"
"Bert Kowalski. He's the only man at Sterling Villas that still drives his own car. He took me to Humpty Dumpty's last night for ice cream."
"Wow, sounds like a hot date" I laughed.
"I’ll have you know he's considered quite a catch. The ladies at Tuesday morning bingo were pretty frosty after word got around" she chuckled.
Other than a few episodes of disorientation Grandma was doing remarkably well.
Then without warning the bottom dropped out.
One day she was fine. The next day she nearly set fire to her kitchen after forgetting to turn off a pot of boiling soup. She fell in the bathroom on two mornings in a row and lay there for hours, bewildered, unable to remember how to get up or to pull the nurse call cord just above her head.
The next heartbreaking step was a nursing home with an Alzheimer's unit, where exits remain locked for resident protection until a code is entered into a keypad; a place regarded as a prison by a woman who was always in charge of her own life.
The first few months were horrible. Grandma’s moods alternated between fits of anger and tearful pleas to go home. I can’t even imagine how unbearable it must have been for her to be held against her will.
Eventually she grew accustomed to her surroundings, helped by regular visits from Mom and me. It isn’t always easy to find time to run to the nursing home in the midst of my own busy day but it’s clearly a sacrifice worth making. When we’re together she feels more normal again; she can be mother or grandma, needed rather than needy.
With no more “chat and runs” to worry about, I can sit shoulder to shoulder with my precious grandmother, leaning my head against hers.
We talk. We giggle. We peacefully sift through old photos. She doesn’t always remember names but she usually knows titles. Aunt, uncle, brother, sister, mom, dad; recalling the part each had played in her life. The pictures seem to jog her memory, keeping her sharper than she might otherwise be. They also seem to help lessen her confusion.
"Who is that man wearing the dark suit and the funny hat?" I asked.
“And the pretty lady in the flowered dress?”
“It’s Mother” she said, lovingly rubbing her thumb back and forth across the figure.
It’s a relief to see Grandma’s eyes brighten when I step through the door because she still knows who I am. I dread the day she won’t. But for now her hugs are still capable of crushing my bones and melting my heart; hugs I never take for granted.
There are signs that she's nearing the end of her journey. Mom and I can see it, feel it. Grandma is less hungry, sleeps a lot, smiles and speaks less. It’s harder to interest her in short walks or a fresh batch of yellowing snapshots; once a source of delight. She’s fading, drifting to a place where we won’t be able to reach her and there’s nothing we can do about it.
How does one prepare for such a loss?
For years I’ve longed to hear that someone has found a cure for Alzheimer’s however it remains an unfulfilled wish. Life can be brutally unfair, and so much of what happens is beyond our control.
But how we look at our circumstances is in our control.
A wise friend said “At first glance we may not like the cards we're dealt. But upon careful reflection we'll usually find something good in every hand, a hidden blessing.”
Mourning the woman Grandma used to be would have meant missing out on the woman she’s become; more affectionate, gentle and trusting than ever before. We have hours of once elusive quiet time to spend together; hours and opportunities to gather dozens of new memories to cherish and hold onto when she’s gone.
Perhaps that’s the hidden blessing.
Copyright 2012 ©