In her heyday – before surgery that would change her life forever, before the onset of Alzheimer’s – Grandma was tall, elegant, and beautiful. Here she is on one of the many vacations she took with her girlfriends.
In the fall of 2010 my dearly beloved maternal grandmother went into the hospital for “life threatening surgery.” I didn’t really expect her to survive it because a year or so before she had insisted that I pen her obituary. She had told me, “I want you to be prepared…I’m not getting any younger and we’ve all got to go.” She figured having me write her obituary would help prepare me emotionally for the transition. I was not ready to let go, but I was prepared to put up a show of strength.
When I first visited her in the hospital she was surrounded by nurses and Granddad all hovered around her bed trying to calm her down. When I got inside their circle she looked like a wild woman, not the churchified, dignified woman I had known and loved all my life. She was fighting so fiercely, they were threatening to strap her arms to the bed.
“She’s been fighting all morning!” Granddad said as I stood there probably looking dazed. “They gon’ haft strap her down. That’s all it is to it! She kicked the doctor, throughed the nurse over there and she’s even fighting me!”
I noticed worn brown leather belts in the nurses hands, looked at Grandma, her eyes glazed, hair ruffled all over the place, sheets and blankets crumpled around her. I quickly gained my composure though.
“Let me try something,” I said to Granddad and the nurses. “Where’s a Bible?”
“What you gon do with a Bible? They gon’ haft strap her down if she don’t stop all this foolishness!” Granddad responded. Then, turning back to Grandma, he added, “Now Baby, if you don’t quit all this carrying on, you gon’ be strapped down. You don’t want that do you?”
Grandma fussed something inaudible. She was yelling, saying she had to get home to the babies she’d left on the porch because the mother wasn’t coming back for them and she needed to get in the kitchen and bake a cake because her guests would arrive any minute. I had never seen Grandma any way except polished, prim and proper.
A nurse handed me a small Bible from the night stand and I moved in closer to Grandma’s side so I could speak softly.
“Grandma, what’s your favorite book in the Bible?” I asked.
She looked confused, but my mission was clear in my mind. She loved the Bible. She reverenced it. Ever since she was a little girl going to Sunday School and church she knew she had to settle down when anyone was reading the Bible. I figured that even being out of her mind, her spirit or something deep inside her would call her to be still when the Bible was being read.
“Grandma I want to read you your favorite book in the Bible,” I said. “What is it?”
“Ephesians,” she said.
I opened the book to Ephesians and began reading. I had embraced my grandparents’ Christianity almost 20 years ago, and I’d read the Bible in church and at home, but the words I found myself reading to Grandma to settle her down unsettled me.
“Wives submit yourselves to your husbands as unto the Lord,” I read, keeping a pleasant voice even as my eyes grew wide with disgust. I was thinking, ‘well here’s the whole problem to your and Granddadd’y relationship right here! He’s been lording over you all these years and you’ve accepted it because of this stuff right here!” But I read on, determined to settle her down. I stepped back from her bed and leaned against the window. Outside it was gray and rainy. I looked across the room and was happy to see Granddad settling down in one of the two orange arm chairs set for visitors. “For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, and is the savior of the body.”
Yuck! I wished I had not offered to read her favorite verse. I would have preferred to read her mine, which is Psalms 21. But I was there for her, so I continued reading Ephesians. I read softly, soothingly, leaning against the window frame. I watched as Grandma fixed the covered around herself, then quietly shuffled her pillows. She slid down under the covers and after an hour or so of my reading she and Granddad were sleep. I woke Granddad to tell him I was leaving, but would return in the morning to talk to her doctor. I suspected that Grandma had been over-medicated and that’s why she was so irritable.
The following morning, just hours before she was scheduled to go into surgery, I returned to her room in time to meet with her doctor and Granddad. I demanded the doctor look at the nurses charts. We confirmed that she had been given too much medicine the day before. Grandma wasn’t feisty this morning. My mother and uncle arrived. A couple of church deacons came in and we formed a circle and prayed for Grandma’s surgery to go well. When the church folks left I chatted with Granddad as my mother leaned over Grandma having a private conversation. I decided to keep Granddad distracted when I realized my mother was working some of her Scientology mo-jo on Grandma. My mother, who was raised Baptist, but turned to Islam then Scientology, loved it all and found useful tools from each. At this moment she was doing something called, “touch-assist” she learned in the Church of Scientology. To my delight and surprise I noticed Grandma become instantly more energetic. When the nurses came to roll her into surgery she left with a joke.
“My obituary is in the punch bowl!” she yelled as she passed me. I laughed and explained to the others.
“She had me write her obituary last year. She must’ve left it in the punch bowl in the ding room where she keeps other important papers.”
It was a bitter-sweet moment. She looked livelier than she had the past few days, yet I remembered her telling me she was ready to die, had lived a good long life and was ready to go anytime the good lord came to take her. The next morning I returned to the room where I expected Grandma to be, having been told that the surgery went well and she was back in her room in recovery. I darted back out of her room and asked the nurses at the station where they’d moved my Grandmother. They pointed me back to the room I’d left. I went back in and realized that was Grandma. I hadn’t recognized her without her teeth and glasses. She was sound asleep, looking frail, pale and half dead. It broke my heart seeing her that way. It would take a long time for me to get used to seeing her that way.
She had not died in surgery, but the strong, sharp-witted, regal woman I had known had. Her decline from there was physical and mental. She developed dementia then Alzheimer’s, but our days together going forward became more soul-enriching than I could have ever imagined. About two years into helping Granddad help her live with the disease, I realized I should keep notes of our experiences.
WARNING: Some of the blogs may be difficult to read, full of anger and acrimony, but that, too, was part of this experience.
When I began telling others about my 95-year-old Granddad being the primary caregiver for my Grandmother who’s suffering Alzheimer’s, I realized most people had their own stories of a loved one with some form of dementia or stories of assisting aging parents. I hope you will feel free to share your stories in comments here and feel free to post links to your blogs on these issues.
On my way to spend time with my Grandparents one evening I noticed a bumper sticker on a car in front of me at the light. It read, “God Chose Me to Be Inspired By a Child With Autism.” I felt blessed that God chose me to be inspired by a grandmother with Alzheimer’s.