I was unable to make eye contact with my grandmother for more than a few seconds straight before I had to look away at the TV. It was on a classic movie station, playing an old movie with actors I didn’t recognize.
Her frail body looked so small. Her hands so thin. Her expression, vacant.
Sometimes she furrowed her brow or tried to smile. Sometimes she flashed a half-smile. Mostly she just looked at me, with her mouth agape.
She suffered a stroke last year that left her weak and somewhat incapacitated. She couldn’t swallow for a long time. She can barely talk anymore. She has been in a slow decline since then. Compounded with neurological symptoms that surfaced after a knee surgery, she was a shell of the woman she was just a year ago.
The physical is one thing to repair. Therapy and repetition can help with that. But, her condition was for worse than we knew. My family suspected something was going on though. Then, we got the news.
She’s in the early stages of Alzheimer’s.
I feared it, but didn’t want to accept it.
She was self-sufficient just months ago, it seemed. She could do everything on her own still. At 71, she was practically crippled by her bad knees, but she managed to get around everywhere with a cane and some assistance. Now, she couldn’t even wrap her arms around me for a hug.
She knew who I was though.
I asked her specifically if she knew me, and she tried to smile. The expression on her face changed. She knew who I was. When I showed up while she received some medication, I noticed a tear rolled down her cheek. I don’t know if it’s because she was happy to see me or because the medicine tasted bad.
I remember celebrating her 50th birthday. It was a big deal at the time.
I remember asking her if she was born in 1984 or 1948. I couldn’t ever remember when I was a kid. She always laughed at me.
I remember that she helped me become the Top Seller of Girl Scout Cookies one year.
I remember she marveled at my writing and my creativity. She always loved the names I came up with for my cats.
She’s still alive, but she’s already gone.
She’s not coming back.
She’s not going to laugh at my jokes, at least where I can hear her. She’s not going to remind me to take care of myself. She’s not going to dote on me and tell me how pretty she thinks I am, or how proud of me she is.
When your loved one is incapacitated by an illness like this, they reach a point of no return. They’re still with us, maybe even receiving treatment and care. But nothing will bring them back to the way they were before.
I know this personally because it happened to my grandfather — her husband — 8 years ago. After a stroke left him bed-ridden, and unable to move, speak, or do anything by himself, my grandfather laid in a hospital bed, or sat up in his recliner, for 13 years. He died the day before his 81st birthday.
My grandmother was the one who took care of him. She didn’t want to put him in a nursing home. She didn’t trust anyone else to take care of him. So she did it at home. I personally believe it isolated her to the point of insanity. She had little sleep and was likely severely depressed, but she didn’t believe in anything except prayer and maybe some vitamins (though she liked to say “don’t know if it does me any good”).
I won’t get to hear those words of wisdom anymore. The ones that made me chuckle. The ones I didn’t appreciate enough.
Last October, a mere 7 months ago, I spoke to her on the phone on my birthday. I told her I was worried about her. She was already showing signs of psychological change. She chuckled and told me she was okay. I cried anyway.
She spoke to me today barely above a whisper. She only said two things.
“It’s okay,” when I told her that I hated to see her like that. And “it was good to see you, too”, right before I left.
I’ll always feel guilty for not seeing her more when she was well. I’ll probably always regret not doing more.
But once she’s passed on, she’ll be in peace. She won’t have to worry. She won’t have the guilt and fear that I have now, that she likely experienced 10x for my grandfather. You don’t have to worry when you reach the great beyond, whatever’s out there.
Grieving and mourning are for the living. It’s selfish, even. How I’m wracked with guilt, while she’s the one actually suffering.
I think back to what I could have or should have done. I think forward to what I could do now to make a difference. Would it even matter? Would it be for her or for me? Is it going to impact her or just ease my guilt?
I’m certainly not going to do nothing. That would be the worst possible answer, right?
The true celebration of the living is to appreciate them and love them while they’re here. I believe they leave a part of them with you when they go. In your heart, in your memories, in your soul. I’d like to believe they take a piece of you when they go, too.
Maybe that’s why it hurts so bad.