Friday, March 28, 2008

So Far Away...

When I placed this movie on our Netflix queue, I already knew it wasn't the best idea. The whole film centers around an older couple in their 60's who are unexpectedly faced with the horrific truth of Alzheimer's. It is the wife who becomes afflicted, and with her mind only beginning to wane, she makes the decision to check herself into a nursing home rather than burden her husband with her care.

I cried pretty much the entire movie because it is not only sad, but I have a personal connection with this disease. It claimed my Granny quite a few years ago, and it will never give her back.

I know that it is difficult to deal with the declining physical health of the elderly. I watched my Grandmother suffer from the after-effects of a major stroke for most of my childhood and teenage years before old age took her home - so, I have experienced the intense grief associated with being a witness to the steady decline of a family members physical body. But, I have to say (and you can disagree if you want - it's always a person's right to do so) that it has been noticeably harder for me to deal with my Granny's mental deterioration than is was for me to handle my other Grandmother's physical woes.

The difficulty lies in the fact that it is expected that as we get older and edge towards the end of this life that our physical bodies will become weaker and break down. After all, our lives on this planet are measured as "over" when our physical bodies give out on us. But, it has been really, significantly sad for my family to watch my Granny's perfectly healthy body stay healthy while her razor sharp mind has become a mess of confusion. It seems unnatural, not the way things should be.

Probably the saddest day for me came shortly after she had begun living at an assisted living facility. My Mom got a routine update from the nurse giving her the good news that my Granny had finally been convinced to shower with one of the nurses assisting her. My Granny had immediately resisted this, saying she didn't need help - but none of us were quite sure if that was true since we were not sure when she had last showered before we brought her there. Things had gone south quickly before we decided she needed full-time help. Her sense of hygiene had declined sharply, and although her home was very neat, it was also very filthy. Everything was in its right place but dust and grime covered every surface. Her clothing was always in need of washing, and she had started to smell. This, in and of itself, was heartbreaking as she had always taken a lot of pride in the fact that she was an excellent housekeeper. Truthfully, her cataracts were as much to blame for the dirt as her Alzheimer's was, but the fact remained that she no longer had the judgement needed to keep clean on her own. The nurse then gave my Mom the "wonderful" news that not only had my Granny showered, but she had done it completely by herself, even balancing on one foot at one point to scrub the other foot's bottom. The whole staff was completely blown away by what excellent physical condition she was in. My Mom thanked her for the report and then promptly hung up the phone and cried.

You see, to us, this wasn't the greatest news. Yes, it is wonderful that at almost 80 years of age my Granny could still perform such amazing feats of balance. And yes, it is amazing that even in the slippery shower (where, in all honesty, her 26 year-old granddaughter (points at self) has slipped attempting the same maneuver - and not just once) she could manage an act that causes many people much difficulty. But for us, it was like an extra kick in the teeth. It was like Life was mocking us.

Life: "Hey family! Guess what!? Your Granny has Alzheimer's! And in a few months, she'll barely know you. That's right! She'll grow to not know you at all only a short time after that. She'll become confused, and she'll cry. She'll ask you if: She ever had a husband? Children? Where did she live? What was she like? Who is she at all? Who are you? Why are you in her room? Eventually, she'll become so confused that during the middle of the night she'll wander out of her room and punch another resident in the face. Yep, you'll have to send her to a REAL home then. Not like the current "cushy" joint. Oh, and did I mention that she's going to live a LONG LONG time. Aren't you pleased!?

It just doesn't seem fair. A person should be rewarded for taking care of their body. They should get to have a long healthy life that they enjoy, that means something. But my Granny does not enjoy her health. She just sits. She sits and she listens to the other old people who inhabit the "crazy people" wing of the nursing home she now lives in.

Last year, I went with my Mom and sisters to see her in the new home. After she was booted out of the assisted living facility, we had no choice but to put her in a place that provided more security. She was now sharing a room with another woman, and was given a lot more medication that she had been previously given. I had tried my best to prepare for what I was going to see, for how she would look, for how this new place would be different, but I couldn't have known.

They were having some sort of party. Someone's birthday or something. All 10 or so old folks were seated at tables with two plastic cups in front of them. One was full of fruit punch. The other was full of popcorn. My first thought was, "My God. They look like preschoolers." Young children being pacified by a pre-measured serving of punch and popcorn. Young children seated at school tables with that germy-urine smell in the air being barely concealed with the heavy smell of antiseptic.

And my Granny. She looked... defeated.

We spent about an hour with her there. Some of the other people were very talkative, and I could see my Granny looking around every once in a while as she caught a conversation, and then turning her head back to glance at us as we talked or at the floor. I took my turn and tried to tell her some exciting news from my life. I told her I was getting married, and I described Husband to her. I told her about our new home and our dog. I let her know that one of Harry's (one of her past pups) toys was still around and that Logan loved playing with it. I talked about work and told her I missed her. And then just as I'd reached my limit and I could feel the tears beginning to choke me, my Mom gave the signal that it was time for us to go.

We all gave her hugs. I chose to go last, and as I leaned down I heard her murmuring something. I couldn't understand right away, so I asked her to repeat herself. I drew close so I could hear better, and as I did she said, "...there's just never enough time."

"....there's just never enough time."

And that was it. I drew back and fought hard to hold onto my tears, but I could feel them coming with a vengeance, and I didn't want to confuse her with my crying. It never does any good to cry and plead with someone who has Alzheimer's, they don't understand you anymore. They don't understand your sadness or disappointment, or even what it really means. So, I hugged her again and turned quickly to head down the hallway. I made it about halfway before my sobs bubbled over the surface and took me.

I have not been back.

Sometimes I feel really guilty for not being there more often. True, I don't go home to Indiana very often, so I have few opportunities to see her, but even the few times I have been back I have not made the trip. I suppose that part of me doesn't really see the point. My Mom visits her a couple hours a week, and although she is pleasant as she listens, none of it ever sinks in. There is no magical moment where clarity creeps in and lights her up. There are no miracles. There are no recognitions. She is gone. Far far away. And nothing is going to bring her back.

I am always expecting a call to tell me she has passed. In a way, I guess I almost hope for it sometimes. I know the woman she was, and I know she would be enraged with the woman she has become. She is a shell who looks like my Granny, but my Granny is no longer there. I know that when the day arrives I will feel the weight of the finality, but most of my grief has already been felt. I lost her years ago, so when her day of peace comes, I know that with it will come a sense of peace for me too.

She will be reconnected with herself again. Whole. No longer just a staring body that tries to remember who she was. No longer alone and away from us. But reconnected with herself, and finally resting after a long and trying journey. Finally at peace.

It's possible that I'm selfish. But, I really don't see it that way. I only want her to know herself again - and we have been assured many times over that that is not something we can hope for.

I believe we all take that for granted, knowing ourselves. Even if we don't like who we see in the mirror. Even if there are points in our history that we regret, or memories that cause us pain - there is no greater gift than being able to know and remember all those things. Having a past, and having a sense of self are too important to lose. They provide us with an identity, they make life make some sense. What would we be without them?

Just shells. Just bodies. People robbed of what it is that makes them human - fears, hopes, memories, love, regret, sadness. All of it, gone. It is a condition that I wish on no one. It is, in my opinion, the greatest of tragedies. And that is why I sometimes ask God to grant my Granny peace of mind, the peace of a whole mind.

And I hope that maybe in her dreams I visit her sometimes. I hope that maybe in that world she can see and know me and that we can talk the way we used to. I hope that in some place she still remembers how much she means to all of us. I hope, in spite of everything. And try desperately to remember it all, no matter how much it may hurt.


Elaine said...

I felt so sad for you when reading this, but honestly don't know what you're going through. When I told Jerod about it he could really truly relate to the feelings. His grandmother died a few years ago and had Alzheimers also. He agrees with everything you have said. Since we live in their old house now, we are constantly reminded by the little things. Keys hanging above the doors because they had to lock them or she would wander. The privacy fence around the backyard so that she would not escape. It's very hard for him.

You are so brave! And I don't blame you for not visiting. I always hated to go to the nursing home to see my great grandma.

Hang in there. Hopefully she will be at peace soon.

Day Dreamer said...

I cried and cried at this.

This was moving and beautiful and sad and an open view of your heart.

Thank you for letting us in.

latt├ęgirl said...

What you wrote here might have been written for my Granny. Almost all of it - especially the part where a stylish, elegant, impeccable woman who was a marvellous cook and baker and hostess and doting grandmother turned into a near-blind, confused, and lonely woman. We all deserve better at the end of our lives. Thank you for such a beautiful (sad, though) essay.