Strength in Weakness

Strength in Weakness

Grandma tells me, "I'm fine - spiritually speaking," and I believe her. I'm glad to see the strength of their faith and their love even as their bodies weaken.

Grandma tells me, “I’m fine – spiritually speaking,” and I believe her. I’m glad to see the strength of their faith and their love even as their bodies weaken.

 

The thing about being a caregiver is that – at least for me, at least for now – the caring doesn’t stop after spending a few hours with my grandparents after work. They are on my mind constantly. Every waking hour it seems, they’re on my mind, I wonder if the nurse arrived on time – or at all; what must I say/do to convince my uncle who lives with them that we all need to know when they’re being left home alone so we can check on them more frequently throughout the day; when and how best do I proceed with managing their paperwork and further ensuring their professional care needs are met now and in the future; when is the next doctor’s appointment; is Grandma ok today or fighting Grandma; what can I do to calm her down; what can I recommend Granddad do to calm her down; do I have a little time at my desk to research tips and resources for caring for an alzheimer’s patient; what about general tips for managing aging parents and all the shifting in interaction that occurs with that. Seems like mind-chattering worry, and maybe it is, but that’s been my reality the past couple of years. Everyday even when I’m not with my grandparents they are with me.

 

One day when I called the house and checked on Grandparents – the singular name I gave them long ago when I realized there are two bodies and two heads of the same being, like Siamese Twins separated – I realized Grandma’s Alzheimer’s disease is only one of many maladies we’re dealing with.

 

The nurse said Granddad was sitting out on the porch. Grandma was in the bathroom and the nurse was telling me she was having a hard time getting Grandma to allow her to apply prescribed ointment to her bottom to treat hemorrhoids. I didn’t know Grandma has that, too, I admitted. The day before I had found that Grandma’s feet are in bad shape. She complained about the mismatched shoes she was wearing hurting her feet. So, I got her to sit down and let me rub her feet. Her heels felt like over-ripe – maybe even bruised – peaches. They were so soft and fleshy I wondered how she could possibly stand on them. I know Granddad’s got aches everywhere – in his right hip and both legs. His ankles are largely swollen, and his eyes burn and stay teary. Granddad takes close to a dozen pills each day, but we are proud that Grandma only takes two – Imodium and a prescribed sleep medicine.

 

With all those maladies, I should be glad they are transitioning out of their bodies. As they have become frail and I see them withering away – their old clothes swallowing their shrinking bodies, their leaning and stumbling giving undeniable assurance that they are slipping away – I now look through them and imagine I’m communicating with their spirit within. Sometimes at night I lay still imaging I’m having a conversation with their spirit not needing telephone lines or in-person presence.

 

One day when I was with them and Grandma went into her rambling mode, I felt invited to communicate with her inner spirit. It was just Grandma and I sitting at the large dining room table, soft sunlight streaming through the partially opened drapes. She began rambling about a supervisor she had cheating her of $100. She went on and on about how this woman didn’t like her, mistreated her and cheated her out of her pay. I tried to bring her back to present time the way my mother suggested: by asking her name and how old she is.

 

“What is your name Miss Lady?” I asked with a cheerful smile.

 

“I know who I am! Charity Irene Thomas!” she said.

 

“Yaaaay! And how old are you?” I continued.

 

She looked at me like I was dumb, paused, then smiled.

 

“I’m fine, spiritually speaking,” she said.

 

Her words reminded me of conversations I had with my dying bestie three years ago. My bestie, dying from cancer, told me “I’m fine. Ray, I’m going to beat this thing!” A few weeks later she was dead, I was puzzled and devastated. But years later I realized she was telling me she was spiritually fine and her cancer would not kill her love of life or her faith in God. She had died still expressing love to family and friends and still encouraging us to believe in God. With that, she had beat the thing.

 

Grandma’s Alzheimer’s and Granddad’s overall decline have been distracting, but overall, I’m sure I will be better off for having walked this walk with them. I’m reminded that we are spirits housed in bodies. After the initial – and frequent – distractions of worrying about their wellbeing I am grateful that I get a chance to see the strength of their faith as their bodies weaken. I see the strength of their love for and commitment to each other despite all the changes in the world around them. I see in them the strength of forgiveness and determination to love.

Baby Steps to Big Adjustments

 

Grandma had recovered from surgery physically, well enough to get around. But she was giving Granddad fits. He needed a break, so I picked her up to attend a Women's Day with me at a church one Saturday.

Grandma had recovered from surgery physically, well enough to get around. But she was giving Granddad fits. He needed a break, so I picked her up to attend a Women’s Day with me at a church one Saturday.


When Grandma was released from the hospital, I was there to help Granddad get her home. As she was getting out of the car, she asked for her cane, but as I was reaching to hand it to her, Granddad said she couldn’t have it.

“She don’t need no cane!” he snapped.

For years, neither of them would use their cane. I started referring to the canes as “walking sticks,” to make the idea more palatable. Grandma would sometimes carry hers along for emergencies, but Granddad would not take his. He insisted that they walk on their own two legs, keeping them strong. Caught between the two of them at the curb, I yielded to Granddad, thinking he knew Grandma – and her strength – better than I. I hooked my arm in hers to help her steady her walk, but he insisted she walk on her own. I stood back privately cheering her on. She made it from the curb to the steps slowly but surely. She made it up the steps, holding onto the rail. She seemed proud of her own strength, and I certainly was.

A few more steps and Grandma fell on her face. I had never felt rage towards my Granddad until this very moment. A man walking past rushed up the steps, helped Grandma back onto her feet, and walked her up the next bank of steps into the house. I felt like God had sent an angel because my ass had punked out. I had allowed Granddad’s fussing to prevail and it left Grandma  face down in the dirt. I rolled my eyes at Granddad, and focused on getting Grandma up the stairs into bed. I was determined to keep Granddad at bay so she could use their stair lift up to their bedroom, but she insisted on walking the stairs instead.

This was not the first time in my life I’d seen Grandma fall. Once, years ago when I lived with them I heard her fall down the stairs on her way out to church one night. I was surprised that she’d bounced up and proceeded out the door. They both valued their strength and resilience.  I respected it and wished I was their brand of strong.

Over the next several months, Grandma regained her strength physically, but I could tell she was changing in other ways. I called to check on her often, and I found her gushing with stories and secrets she wanted to share. Her stories were so interesting – and full of wisdom – I bought a device to record her over the phone. These were stories I’d been trying to get at all my life: what kept you going? Why did you stay married so long if you hated Granddad’s fussing? Why were you so critical? What was life like for you growing up?

Without my asking questions now, she told me about her past and how she was feeling in the present. She wanted to talk more than I had time to listen, but sometimes I made time to allow her to vent.

“How are you feeling this morning Grandma?” I’d ask.

“Sometimes I don’t even want to get out of bed. I wish the Lord would come and take me home,” she said one morning. “I feel like that more and more these days. But I give myself a few minutes to feel sorry, then I get on up and get on with the day.”

The first time she hinted that she feels depressed sometimes took me by surprise. But she instantly seemed more real, more human – beyond her title of Grandma, beyond her role of stalwart in my life.

Over the next several weeks, Granddad complained bitterly about her mood swings and outbursts. He said she was wearing him out, he needed a break. I promised to pick her up on Saturdays some weekends to give him a rest for a few hours. The first time, I picked her up to attend a Women’s Day at a church where I worked through the week teaching English as a Second language to men and women from around the world. The church was less than 30 minutes from where Grandparents lived, and I figured she would enjoy almost any event held in a church.

Grandma was treated like a star in the workshops once I disclosed that she was 93 years old and had been married since she was 21. The women believed she must be sitting on a pot of wisdom, and they pelted her with questions. She mostly smiled, nodded, and gave short answers. I did not think to take notes because I had planned to simply enjoy the day. Although some of the women in the workshops may have felt educated by her bits of wisdom, my lesson came when I took her home.

Helping her out of the car, I noticed she’d had a bout of incontinence. I hadn’t been prepared for what to expect after major surgery, through which most of her intestines were removed. I’d been told that the doctors’ would prescribe a pill to stop her up because modern medicine was that awesome. Either she had not taken the pill this day or it hadn’t worked. I pretended not to see the small mess she’d made on the passenger seat of my car, determined to maintain her dignity. I loved her enough to ignore the mess. I hadn’t thought that much about the ways we show love, the ways we need love, but I was beginning to learn.

 

Honey Suckle Anyhow

Honey Suckle Anyhow

I was leaving home, heading into the city to pick-up my grandparents to take them to church, one Sunday morning when I decided to grab a hand full of fresh honey suckle from the nearby forestry to sweeten my ride.

Honey suckle grows wild in my neighborhood. But I hadn’t thought to pick some to freshen my home and car until I saw a neighbor picking it.

I had loved honey suckle since I first noticed it’s sweet fragrance as a little girl. It grew in the front yard of my biological grandmother, the woman who had given my mother away as a toddler and later rejected my mother’s attempts to reconnect. I hated visiting her because she was so mean. But I was forced to spend time with her, and, to make the most of it, I delighted in whatever I could. When my cousins and I discovered the honey suckle bush in her front yard, we delighted in pulling the stem from the flower and dipping it on our tongue to savor its sweet juice. Honey scent of honey suckle always reminded me of this grandmother I loved to loath.

This grandmother had been contrary when not down right mean. Unlike the woman who adopted my mother and became affectionately known to me as “my real Grandmother,” my biological grandmother had mocked religion and church folk, calling it all “some foolishness,” and “non-sense.” This grandmother, who had conceived 11 babies by a married man and given all but three up for adoption, had gone to church only on Bingo nights as far as I knew. She had left her three young children at home to fend for them selves. She had used the child support money their father gave her to gamble. She had died a withering death, first losing her ability to maintain her own health and hygiene, then she succumbed to heart disease. But honey suckle always reminded me of her because I had discovered it first in her front yard.

As I picked a couple fists full of honey suckle to scent my car for my ride to church this particular morning, I delighted in realizing that God had blessed this grandmother with abundant honey suckle in her own yard despite her often spoken disdain for our notions of God and for organized religion. God had blessed her with honey suckle anyhow.

I was reminded that the sun shines on sinner and saint and the rain nourishes us regardless of our beliefs.