Saturday, September 1, 2012


Sometimes life gives you a preview of what lies ahead, and I'm not sure those previews have been approved for all audiences.

When I was six- or seven-years-old, my grandmother developed encephalitis and forgot almost everything.  I don’t remember all that much of it either.  As a child wrestling with the scope of my own agency, I thought that I somehow controlled the world around me.  But that world was going horribly wrong, and in my elementary-school mind, I was a complete failure. 

The memories were fuzzy, but the pain of them is still there.  After losing a baby, my mother discovered that her own mother was very, very ill.  How long Grandma was actually in the hospital is not something I know, but I do remember lying awake late at night listening to agonized phone calls.  Sometime around those first calls, my mother had surgery and, after a very brief recovery, took a trip down to Florida with her sisters to help her dad take care of Grandma. 

Grandma was apparently not Grandma.  She accused Grandpa of making babies with the nurses under the bed.  She stripped her pants outside because a chameleon ran up her slacks (okay, I'll give you that she was on an enclosed patio, and I might have done the same thing even without being mentally compromised).  She didn't know her friends.  She didn't remember the nurses.

In spite of the worry over her mother, my own mother has repeatedly said that the memories of that trip are the best memories she has of her dad.  I'm sure that she had been thinking of him, a man with three daughters and two granddaughters who had always wanted a boy, when she and my father applied for and were accepted as adoptive parents--for a little boy.

And it's a good thing she had that visit because not much later, about six weeks after my brother arrived, my grandfather suffered a brain aneurysm and died suddenly. 

My grandmother remembers none of it and accorded herself a failure too.  She was passed between her daughters' houses as much as any of them could handle her.  It wasn't that my grandmother herself was difficult, although she did some really crazy things like constantly sneaking branches from the spruces and hiding them under the chairs as a remedy for the fleas, which ruled the house after our dog had given birth to puppies and couldn't be dipped.  The fleas never went away, but we did stop walking in bare feet.  After stepping on the needles a few times, nobody when into the living room without shoes.

But the spruce branches were bearable.  Watching Grandma was unbearable.  My grandmother had become just a shadow of who she used to be--and a strange shadow at that, one that seemed oddly contorted by the dim slant of her waning intellect through the clouds of encephalitis.  It was simply too painful to stomach for weeks on end.  And so they shuffled Grandma back and forth.  Life was hard for Mom and Dad with Grandma there.

On the other hand, I was not having such a good fall without Grandma.  I hated school, cried when I was there, and never wanted to go. For a while, I missed at least one day a week. Then Grandma came to stay with us.

She became my heroine. Grandma rode all the roller coasters and never got dizzy or nauseous. She would buy sweet-and-sour suckers and sneak them next to our pillows during the night. She took us to play in the sand pit by the long jump. She never budged for anybody, even the junior high track coach trying to coax her out during a meet. She watched "One Life to Live" every afternoon. She fell asleep on the floor in a patch of the afternoon sun, and when I came home from school, my little sister would be sitting on the slumbering Grandma and eating microwave popcorn. Sometimes Grandma would groan. My sister would stand up. Grandma would roll over, and my sister would sit back down.

It didn't matter to us that she didn't remember anything, that she had forgotten that my grandfather had died, that my sister had to show her the way to the elementary school when they sometimes walked up to meet me.  It was magical, walking home while basking in the light of Grandma's glowing attention.  It didn't matter what old wives tales she told me: that I'd better not grow too big for my britches, that I needed a peck of dirt in my life time, that it was bad luck to open an umbrella in the house.

I don't remember craziness from Grandma.  I remember a woman who listened to my problems (okay, well, sometimes she fell asleep, but that was probably her medication).  I remember a woman who would read us one bedtime story after another without complaining.  I remember a woman who could tell stories of her own crazy childhood and her four brothers and how she had to learn to eat without chewing or her brothers would eat everything.  To me, Grandma wasn't a shadow of a brain but the embodiment of a heart.

Eventually, Grandma didn't want to remember that time.  Like a bitter aftertaste, the absence of her memory--particularly the memory of her husband's death--lingered.  But to me, it was the highlight of my childhood, the cream center of the iced chocolate cupcake.

And it was somehow fitting that it was Grandma who realized that I was forgetting things a decade later.  I'm not exactly sure when it happened.  I had had a concussion a few days after starting college.  I went straight back to school, but things weren't right.  I just couldn't recall things--not so much things like the derivative of x-cubed or the chemical formula for sucrose but basic things like who my roommate was and what classes I was taking.  I know that I forgot them because I started writing about them.  Then I realized that if anyone ever got hold of my diary, they could convince me of anything.  So I started hiding the journal pages.  I still find them every now and then.  Their tone surprises me.  The amount of paranoia, off-putting at first glance, makes sense when you realize that an amnesiac (and an Alzheimer's patient) believes everyone is lying to her.  She would never do something like that.  And certainly, if she did, she would remember.  And then again, in a culture in which what you do makes you what you are, if you don't remember what you do, are you who you think you are?

I tried to withhold judgment when Grandma forgot little things.  I was far away, and if she forgot I was married or that I had boys, not girls, well, that was understandable.  After all, she didn't get to see me much.

But then there was the day that she put something on the stove and then went out back with her dog Ginger.  As she chased Ginger through the yard, the pot boiled dry and started to smoke.  Of course, I understand burning dinner.  I understand setting off the fire alarm and inadvertently alerting the security system company and, subsequently, the fire department.  What I can't understand is how she came to be surprised to meet the fire marshal in her living room, how she had missed the fire engine in front of her door, how she had failed to recognize that the approaching sirens were coming toward--and stopped at--her own house.

It was time for us to look for a different living situation for Grandma.  If we didn't know it then, her trip to my parents' house that fall cemented it.  Grandma didn't know who I was.  Sure, she remembered her granddaughter; Bethy was four-years-old and very special.  When my mom needed to go into the hospital that weekend, I came to stay with Grandma--to make sure she felt comfortable, to keep her calm, and to force her to eat something since she kept forgetting she was hungry.  She couldn't remember my son's name, even though he sat on her lap and reminded her frequently--to the tune of every 45 seconds.  She kept calling out for my aunt to help her--my aunt, who had stayed in Ohio, 300 miles away.

So, after much heartache and tantruming on all sides, Grandma now has a small apartment in an assisted living community.  She is unhappy, but we are all relieved.  We don't worry that someone is sneaking in at night.  We don't fear that she will burn herself to death.  And we know that if she doesn't remember to eat, someone will come knocking on the door to check on her.

But I remember what it was like to forget.  And so it is now that I sympathize with my grandmother.  I don't correct her when she, the Queen of Microwave Popcorn, insists that she's never had the stuff.  I know what it's like.  As she loses more and more years of her life, retreating further and further into her childhood, I don't try to bridge the gap.  My aunt was both livid and morose the other day.  "She thinks I'm her sister!" she said.  "I thought, 'Look in the mirror, woman! I don't look that old.' Her sister, my foot."  I understand.  It is crushing to watch.  But I don't let the sadness linger.  If Grandma thinks I'm a peer, so be it.

Of course, some days she's so lucid I wonder if she really needs assisted living.  And then, during the same phone call, she is suddenly not on the phone.  I can't reach her calling back.  I wonder if she has just fallen asleep or if she has truly fallen and can't get up.  I make an emergency call to my aunt.  "Can you call the facility?  Please ask them to check on Grandma.  She was just on the phone, and now she's not."

It turns out, the call was just disconnected.  Grandma didn't know how to call me back.  I'm wondering if she also didn't know how to hang up because I certainly couldn't reach her when I tried calling back.  And I realize that, yes, despite my own hopes otherwise, Grandma needs the help.

Even the little ones know that.  Shortly after Grandma's visit, my youngest son and I were at the library where he was unsuccessfully lobbying for me to check out a comic book with teeny tiny writing to read to his brother and him.

"I can't possibly see that behind two squirming boys," I told him.  "I'm too old."

The little one immediately dropped the book and took my face in his hands.  Putting his nose tip to tip with mine, he searched my eyes and asked very slowly:

"You are really old, Mommy?"

He paused.  "Do you know who I am, Mommy?"

And finally, so close that I felt I could smell every chocolate chip the child had eaten on his breath, he whispered, "Who am I, Mommy?"

"You're my little boy!" I cried, tickling his ribs and giggling right along with him, to the thorough disdain of the librarians.  In spite of the giggles, though, I wondered.  Will it be me?  Someday, will I forget my little boy?

Some people say that Grandma's not the woman she was anymore.  That may be.  But who is?  She wasn't herself all those years ago, but the love was still there.  And, in our phone conversations, it still is.

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