(My grandmother would have been 115 today, January 24, 2020, if she had not passed away a month before my first child was born in 1994. I love to imagine her laughing in heaven--at her jokes and everyone else's!)
“Where're we going?” Grandmama, buckled in tight, sat in the passenger’s seat of her ancient sedan.
“How long’s it going to take us?” Grandmama stared out her window; her bright eyes seeming to take in the scenery. Mother knew better. Dementia clouded all of Grandmama’s experiences these days.
“Well, it’s about 15 miles,” she told her mother, “ It'll take us about 20 minutes.”
“Oh.” Grandmama nodded and slipped back into the mystery of her musings.
It was hard for Mother. Time was when she and her mother could talk without pause about anything. Once a vibrant, feisty, confident woman, Grandmama had been slowly slipping away for years. This meek soul who now inhabited her body often seemed like a stranger to her beloved daughter, my mother.
In a moment, though, Grandmama perked up again.
“Where’re we going?” she asked, looking over at the one person she always remembered.
“We’re going to Loris, Mother, to the Doctor’s office.”
“Hmm. How long you think it’s going to take us?” Grandmama asked, clueless.
“Well,” Mother said, “It’s about 15 miles. It should take us about 20 minutes.”
“Oh.” Grandmama nodded and turned back towards the passenger window.
The silence didn’t last long.
“Where’re we going?” Grandmama, smiling innocently, looked at Mother, waiting for her to answer.
Mother took a deep breath. “Actually,” she said, “We’re, uh, going to the Doctor’s office. It’s in, ya know, Loris.”
Grandmama nodded, but wanted to know more. “So, how long’s it going to take us to get there?”
Mother unfazed replied again, “It should take us about 20 minutes. It’s about 15 miles.”
“Oh,” Grandmama said. “Well. I guess I ought to know by now. I've asked you three times.”
My grandmother was born January 24, 1905; it's hard to say when the dementia began, but by the mid 80's it was full blown. I always said that as the dementia advanced Grandmama got sweeter and sweeter to the point that she was just pure sugar by the time she passed away in 1994. For the last five years of her life, Grandmama lived with her youngest daughter, my mother. In this post from 2009, I recall some snippets from those last few years.
“I know someone who will take care of me,” my grandmother told us from the shelter of my mother’s arms. We’d been picking on her—trying to awaken the feisty grandmama we used to have before dementia kidnapped her. She had had about enough of our shenanigans when my mother walked through the room. Grandmama pushed herself up from her chair, walked straight to Mother, tucked her head into Mother’s shoulder, and looked back at us, triumphant.
She was right. My mother, her daughter, took care of her, loving her through the fog of memory loss. Mother loved Grandmama enough to keep her busy, despite the obvious limitations. She kept a jar of coins handy and would pour it out on the kitchen table for Grandmama. “Could you count these for me, Mother,” my mother would say to hers, “It would sure be a big help to me.” And Grandmama would set about sorting and stacking, making sure her towers of coinage were just so. Mother had Grandmama count those coins, water plants, or fold clothes because everyone needs to feel needed. Everyone needs something to do.
Mother loved Grandmama enough to bless her with beauty. On the screened-in porch where Grandmama loved to sit in her rocking chair, Mother kept flowering plants in Grandmama’s favorite colors. “Look Grandmama! Isn’t that beautiful?” we’d say, pointing to a plant she had already seen a dozen times. She would turn to look, her eyes brightening at the sight that was brand new to her. “Ewwweee! What a pretty flower! Look at those purple blooms. You know, I’ve always loved purple.” We knew.
Mother loved Grandmama enough to keep telling her story to her. “Mother, how many children did you and Daddy have?” Mother would prompt her. “Well, now, let me see. . .” Grandmama would begin, searching the faces in her memory. She loved thinking about her children, even though she didn’t really recognize their adult versions any more.
Watching Mother care for Grandmama back then, I wanted to put into words somehow my appreciation for the sacrifices she was making. (Grandmama and Granddaddy had moved in with my parents shortly before my Granddaddy died in 1989.) I wrote this poem in the early 90’s in honor of Mother, in memory of Grandmama.
TO MY GRANDMOTHER’S KEEPER
In the darkness of her mind,
children blend with siblings;
reality slips into the forgotten past.
to mouth, tumble out in jumbled speech.
Alone, but not,
She searches her audience
for a sign
her foggy eyes
find your focus;
her life-worn frame
folds into your
the gray cloud of her mind releases showers of tears.
With firm assurance
call her in
from her private storm.
Knowing it is her greatest fear, you tell her,
(again):“You will never be alone. Never.”
And fleeting comfort shelters her.
And that is all you need.
Happy Birthday Grandmama!