I wrote this piece nine years ago. I have never forgotten it, never published it before. In the intervening years my perspective on my gramma, her life, and her Alzheimer’s, has softened even more. I don’t list here all the fun times we had in the nursing home, on our walks and drives, or afterward. I think maybe the emphasis here, at the beginning of the essay, is perhaps a little too much on the sorrowful side. Once I got through that nursing home door, facing down my fear of painful emotion yet one more time, I enjoyed some of the most profoundly loving and playful times of my life.
But I won’t change the essay, just let you see it as it sat with me back then. And I will sit with it again, myself, steep in all that love that really had less to do with family, at which we had not been very successful, as with human being. In the verb sense. The best kind of love of all.
Gramma fell in February. For ten years she'd been living in a nursing home, in good health, but Alzheimer's had changed her. It had been ages since we could sit and talk in the accustomed way—what have you been doing, this is what I've done. She couldn't remember the beginning of the sentence by the time we reached the end. And after awhile, she didn't care.
Not that she had given up hope—she'd given up worry. She made a policy of being polite to everyone in case they were a friend, and gave up old grudges for good. The daughter she had had the most anger toward, she simply forgot. She became in some ways the Gramma I'd always wanted. Someone who was delighted to see me. Someone who knew how to play. I learned how to converse without referring to any other person or any other time—she wouldn’t remember them. I learned to kiss her and hug her, things we never used to do, to sing old songs with her, to call her puppy-face, to do silly things to get her to laugh.
Image: Marie, by Casey June Wolf.
But still, it was hard to make myself go and see her. Her humour had to be worked for. She was confused and not always at ease. She'd tell me things repeatedly like, "When I'm scared I just say to myself over and over, 'Oh, God, Oh, God, Oh, God…'" Plucking her own sleeve. Holding my arm and hobbling beside me down the long hall.
It was hard for other reasons, too. I felt stupid with the staff there, able to hear every clumsy word I said. And there was the lady who cried out for her son, day after endless day; the man who raged at the staff; the one who stood in front of the TV and got yelled at by the other residents; the frail woman who spoke only Cantonese but gestured to me on each visit that someone was stealing her buttons, and begged me to help.
And it was gloomy to see Gramma's life crawling to a close, with no dreams fulfilled that I could see. I did go to visit her. But once she didn't like going for strolls or drives anymore, which at least had given me the sense I was cheering her up a bit, there were times I couldn't make myself walk through the door.
Then one day, shortly after a great visit where I had stayed for hours because she didn't want me to leave, and we'd had a grand time doing I forget what, she fell. I wasn't told for three days that she'd been injured, but when I heard, I went to see her as fast as I could. She lay narrow and waxy, her toothless face caved in without her dentures, eyes closed, mouth open, looking as if she was about to step through that door and never look back. Though I was told there was no point, that she didn't know I was there, I went every day and stayed as long as I could. She would waken and look at me in surprise. Sometimes I could make her laugh with a goofy comment before she slumped back into sleep. Once she shoved me away from the bed and collapsed in an angry slumber. I brought books and read to myself and if she woke, I leaned in and talked with her. She started to cling to my hand even in sleep for hours on end. The nurses noticed the clinging, too, and brought her a knitted bear to clutch during the long hours on her own.
Gradually, she came to awareness again. They took her off morphine, gave her back her dentures, sat her up. Soon she was awake more than she slept, watching the shadows of other patients shifting in their beds. Whispering questions about the nature of the lights she saw glowing across the room.
The pain in her arm and hip were punishment, literally. She could never remember what had happened, that she had fallen, and the pain shocked and saddened her. The change of domicile disturbed her, too. She leaned toward me one day and said unhappily, but with resolve to tough it out, "I guess I was mischievous too many times, and they finally caught me." Gramma was raised in an institution, see, and suddenly she was back there, and I was her child companion, in on jokes and secrets, witnessing her confusion and pain.
She was happy to see me, not too happy to be offered food and meal replacement drinks again and again when she had lost all interest in eating. But happy to sing—very happy to sing Frere Jaques, Allouette, It's A Long Way To Tipperary, and the rest. Every time she asked my name, and I answered, "Casey," she sang, "Casey Jones, she mounted to the cabin. Casey Jones, she mounted to the cabin. Took a one way trip to the promised land..."
I was relieved that she was not very aware of my world—she was only conscious of me in so far as I reminded her to be alive. Because it was hard to stop the tears. Tears at her suffering. Tears at the thought of losing someone I had never really had, and had always yearned for, and now finally, in some strange circumstance, found myself unleashing love on for hours every day.
No more waiting for a Gramma to love and protect me. No more holding back for fear of guilt-trips or cutting remarks. No more keeping my hugs and kisses to myself in case of rejection or looking like I wanted what I could not have. I laid 'em on her. We lived for it. We laughed, we hugged, we sang, we shared her secret thoughts. She would fix her gaze on my big toothy smile and then pull back her lips, tap her dentures and say how wonderful these things were. Then look evilly at me and say, "You're lucky I'm not hungry!" She told me to hush up because no one else was talking loud, though I talked loud to counter her deafness. She tossed her food over her shoulder or smeared it under the blanket and told me not to tell. She confided, "I used to be the boss of something, a long time ago. But now, I'm not anymore, and I keep very quiet." She begged me not to let her die. Over and over until my heart broke. "Well, Gramma," I finally said, "if you don't want to die, you'd better eat." She turned her face away.
One day, she remembered me. She said, "If I die, don't be hurt. And don't be sad." Then she looked at the woman stirring in the other bed. "Is that a person? What is she doing? Who is she?" For the thousandth time.
I could spell out the riches I gained in the two months I spent by her side. To focus entirely on this moment—and to focus with love only and not with hurt or wish or need—was probably the greatest experience of all. (While keeping my focus on her I was releasing those sorrows pretty constantly whenever they arose—without the tears I couldn't have provided the fun.)
To let go bit by bit of the thought that she—or I—needed to ever amount to anything, to be anyone, to prove our worth, was another gift I haven't entirely lost. She never became anything—not even happy. She cleaned house all her life. She waited on God until she forgot him, too.
In the last couple of days before she died, her voice grew very faint. I would take her down the long hall of the new nursing home to a window with trees beyond it, and a playground below, out of sight. I would say, "There are kids playing down there, on carts, and running around." She would like that, but wouldn't want to look. Soon, even that information was unimportant to her. But she would suddenly focus on the trees, or on the magnolias printed on the wallpaper, or at the handsome chair between the window and the wall, and mumble, "It's beautiful..." Or she would shrug her shoulders and give a ghost of an eyebrow raise as if to say, "I'm pooped. This is weird. What the hell."
Three days before she died, when I was weeping silently beside her and she seemed to be asleep, she startled me by saying something I couldn't believe I'd heard. I asked her to repeat it, and for the first time in forever, when I asked her to repeat something, she did. She said, "Nothing bad is happening." And she was right.
Even after she went into a coma, I sat with her, more even than ever. I sang in her ear, "It's a long way to
and I stroked her wisps of hair. For two days she lived only to breathe, and,
like eating had once been, like cleaning house and keeping in good with God and
all the other work a little girl had to do nearly a hundred years ago, it was a
hard, singular job. Twice, three times, four times she fought with breath. The
tears that never came before this, through all she'd suffered, ran softly down
her cheek. And in that way, finally, she died. Tipperary
Each of us said our farewells to her in whatever way we could. Except, perhaps, me. I am still in that room, singing with her, loving as I have never loved before, with a woman who couldn't follow a single thought, some believed, who muttered gibberish, who couldn't be reached. And she is reaching me still.