I wasn’t even planning to bring any of the kids on this particular visit to Bismarck, N.D., where my mother resides, but when we realized my author visit would come close to my Grandmother’s 101st birthday, the youngest kids wanted to be a part of it. They still remembered the big bash we had last year when Grandma turned 100, and figured anyone who lives that long deserves a really big birthday celebration every year of their lives.
I agreed, and began rethinking our trip a little to accommodate these smaller travel companions, and so it was that a few weeks ago, we set off on the interstate one bright day with our hearts full of anticipation of celebrating life with this woman who has meant so much to all of us, and without whom we would not exist.
My mother had arranged the transit bus to bring the two of them from the nursing home to Olive Garden, where a delicious meal and even a special birthday cake, which had been planned ahead of time, would be delivered to mark the occasion.
The only thing that could dampen the mood would be if Grandma, who has suffered from bouts of dementia in these final years of her life, were in one of her off days. For the most part, we’ve caught some good moments during our visits, and so I was hopeful. Surely, a meal away from the nursing home would bring a little life; it often did.
But just before the transit arrived, Mom warned us that it seemed we would not have our sweet Grandma with us in the way we had hoped. I could tell the minute the transit ramp began lowering her on her wheelchair that Grandma was not with us. She wore that blank expression that I have come to dread and am not sure how to sort through. When we tried to engage with her, all that came back was an empty look. Mostly, she just closed her eyes and shut us all out.
I tried will all my might to woo Grandma out to be “with us.” In the past, sometimes, a gentle touch on the shoulder would do it. But when I tried, she swatted me away quick as lighting with a growl. I will admit, it hurt, not physically of course, but inside.
“I’ve never seen Grandma move that fast,” my youngest said later as we processed the evening. We giggled a bit then because, well, the whole thing looked like a total flop from the outside, and you need a little chuckle sometimes to lift your spirits. And thank God for such perspectives in these moments. I needed that.
It takes me back to a time, just after my Grandpa Joe died, when (so the story goes) I, 9 years old — around the same age as the son who mentioned Grandma’s fast arm — knocked on the door of the bathroom where my Grandma was apparently hiding from guests to have a moment of quiet tears over her new widowhood status.
“Grandma,” I yelled from the other side of the door, “we just got ANOTHER ham. We have so many hams!” I said, impressed with the plentiful giving taking place in the wake of our loss. Grandma later told me she couldn’t help but smile, and that my words of innocent wonder took her mind off her grief, and helped her to see life would go on again somehow.
And now, I need those same kinds of distractions to help me cope with what’s going on with Grandma.
I’ll admit that sometimes, I feel guilty about my sadness regarding this little lady who once had such life in her. Others have even remarked, “Well, she IS 101 after all.” As if the fact that she’s lived long should lessen my grief. It’s true she’s had a long life, and that is a comfort, but still, she’s the only grandparent I’ve known since age nine when Grandpa Joe died. She is our matriarch, a living icon. And so her exit will be a tremendous loss, no matter her age. I want to enjoy each moment remaining with her, and yet, how to do this when she’s in another world, and tender words and touches bring only an angry scowl? It’s so hard…
Yes, my heart feel conflicted when it comes to Grandma. I am already grieving her, even as she remains among us. This has been going on for a while now. It is painful in many ways to visit her, and yet, Mom does it almost every day, sometimes leaving early because of unkind words and worrisome actions like throwing things across the room. Other days, she is okay, and they have nice conversations, and there is every reason to feel the life still there is worthy to be so.
I wanted to write about Grandma’s 101st birthday but groped for the hope I’d want my post to include. But then my sister, Camille, who visited Grandma on a good day a few days after her birthday, sent an email with some stories Grandma had recalled during their visit. She agreed to let me share them.
Mom and Roxane,
Today when we visited Grandma, some of our conversation was about her school years. She talked again about starting school early, and I’ve recorded that before, but this first piece is something I hadn’t heard before:
Elizabeth had previous school experience before entering the first grade. It seems that students were allowed to bring a friend to school at times, so about once a week, at age 4, she went along to school with a friend of hers. Elizabeth doesn’t remember much about the friend, other than going to school with her and that the girl was a Christian Scientist.
And then, this story I’d heard before, but hadn’t written down:
Classmates recognized Elizabeth’s intelligence. When Elizabeth and other students were sent to the chalkboard to solve a math problem, Elizabeth did not like that others copied her answers. To correct this lawlessness (my word), Elizabeth began writing the wrong answer in her problems. Then, when the teacher came by to check each student’s work, Elizabeth would quickly change her answer to the right one before the teacher got to her.
Both I have added to my log of Grandma’s recollections, and thought you might like to hear them, too.
I’m grateful to my sister for doing this. A long, recorded interview on cassette tape I did with grandma quite a few years ago seems to be missing in action. It’s important we write down these stories when they come.
Grandma’s birthday party may have seemed like a dismal failure. She refused her yummy cake, so we ate it in her stead while she closed her eyes.
She likely has no recollection of our time together. But at the end of the day, I’m still glad we tried. Despite her current state, so fickle and frustrating, there is still reason to celebrate her life, even if it is hard-won.
The conflicted heart moves quickly into families where Alzheimer’s is present. This illness is not kind, and nothing I would wish on anyone. I miss the Grandma I used to know who brought so much spark to the party. And I want her to live in freedom once again; I am ready for Grandma to go when the Lord takes her. Until then, I will live with this conflicted heart and love her in the small ways, and hang tight to the memories that bring me close to her once again, no swatting hands in our way.
Q4U: Have you dealt with Alzheimer’s or other memory-loss illnesses in your family? How have you dealt with this?