This past weekend, my mother, husband, and sister flew down to Georgia to take my grandmother to her family reunion. My grandma has Alzheimer’s, and it’s a disease, like so many others, that only gets worse.
At times, I admit, it has disturbed my faithful commitment to the intrinsic value of life as worth living. But I’d like to share a few episodes from our trip that underscore her untarnished ability to love and to give. (Names have been changed)
The Whole Gang
Grandma is riding in the front seat while mom drives. She nods off often, head drooping low with her chin almost touching her chest. The angle of it scares me. She wakes up sometimes and looks at my mom. “Won’t you stay in my apartment tonight?” she invites. “You can sleep on the pull out bed in the living room.”
“Thank you,” mom says, “but I’m staying at Park Circle tonight.” That’s where grandma lived for over fifty years before she moved into assisted living.
Grandma seems concerned. “Oh, are you alone?” she asks.
“No,” mom answers patiently.
“Well, who’s with you?” Grandma wants to know.
Mom shakes her head. This conversation has already happened three times during the car ride. “Look behind you.”
Grandma shifts her weight and cranes her neck to look into the back seat. She almost jumps! She is clearly surprised to see my sister, my husband and me sitting there. “Oh!” she exclaims, “I forget they were here.”
“Do you know who they are?” my mom quizzes her.
“Yeeah,” she draws southernly, “that’s Jeff, Stephanie, Lynne and Anna.”Lynne, our other sister, is not there, but Grandma has correctly identified that Lynne and Anna usually come as a pair.
It is 11 pm. We return to Grandma’s assisted living home after a sweltering day of activities and family reunioning in the Georgia sun. She has fallen asleep sitting upright almost every time that she has been sitting and still. But when we get in the door, the 84 year old perks up. She indicates the empty refrigerator. “Y’all want something to eat?” she asks cordially, “I don’t know how much I have, but you’re welcome to it!” She has entered entertaining mode as the consummate host, infallibly polite. She has no concept of time, day or night.
We tell her that we are full and take seats on the brown, plaid couch from the 1970s.
Mom begins helping her get ready for bed, go to the bathroom, change clothes etc. Grandma sits down again, asks us our ages again, and we re-affirm our connection to her. Anna and I are Carol, her daughter’s, children. Jeff is my husband.
The dots connect in her brain. We are her grandchildren. She realizes this. Perhaps she even realizes (for a time) that I, the pregnant 24 year old sitting in front of her, am the same beloved browned-haired child of four years in the pictures on the wall.
She rises hastily and goes to her bedroom, rummaging through drawers. We are confused, but not startled or worried. This is not unusual behavior.
My mom goes in to check on her and asks her what she is doing. Grandma explains that she is looking for change to give us. The kind woman has always given gifts, and even in her hazy state, is doing her darnedest to find something to bestow upon us.
Mom is touched, but explains to her that we are leaving tomorrow and that she should come out and spend time with us.
She does and is surprisingly animated. She tells us about the time my cousin came and stayed with her and grandpa for the first time when he was just a toddler.
My mom has visited Grandma several times without the rest of the family. She helps her clean up, restore order and generally makes sure that Grandma is being adequately cared for. Mom looks for things that are lost and restores them to their proper place.
One day, she found something interesting.
An important preface is that Grandma was a nurse and in a borderline OCD fashion, writes down everything. Absolutely everything. As she has declined into dementia these writings have become increasingly fragmentary, capturing only the most irrelevant details of the exchange instead of the essential ones. She painstakingly writes down the spelling of last names while failing to note the identity and role of the person to whom the name belongs.
Here is a paraphrase of a written note my mother found recently, a note that was the most coherent that’s been seen in years:
“I’ve been sleepy for a long time. I think that Henry and Claudia are dead, but I’m not sure. And I can’t remember what happened to them.”
Henry is Grandpa, her husband who died thirteen years ago after a ten year struggle against cancer, during which she cared for him lovingly and tenderly, looking after his every need.
Claudia was their oldest daughter. She died forty years ago at the age of sixteen in a motorcycle accident.
Grandma’s power of memory goes in and out, but her commitments to God, to her family and to loving kindness are always there.
From Timothy Cardinal Dolan’s Book “True Freedom: On Protecting Human Dignity and Religious Liberty.”
“When I was a newly ordained priest in Saint Louis, one of my weekly assignments was to visit an elderly couple who lived in the parish…The husband was severely disabled and had lost the ability to speak, and the only way he was able to communicate was through a series of blinks and eye movements. I couldn’t understand them on my own, but his loving wife, who cared for him so tenderly, was able to translate….One of the things that always struck me during my visits was the couple’s serenity, a real sense of inner peace….I told the wife how impressed I was by her patience and with her husband, and I told the husband what an inspiration he had been to me. “In the eyes of the world, you’re in bad shape,” I said. “You’re unable to move, unable to talk, unable to do so many of the things that most of us take for granted and consider necessary for a useful and productive life. And yet, in all the weeks that I’ve been coming here, you’ve never once complained or asked, ‘Why did God allow this to happen to me?’ What’s your secret?”
His wife held his hand as he blinked out his reply, and she passed it on to me: “Just to live is itself a gift from God. Every morning when I wake up I am so happy to be alive for another day that I cherish the opportunity that I’ve been given.”
That, to me, is still one of the best definitions of the dignity of life that I’ve ever heard.
That is how my grandmother sees life. She frequently repeats that her life has been so good, and she’s been so blessed for all these years, grateful for every day. I believe that is a God’s eye view of life, and I hope it’s the view I will have forever.
Sufferers from Alzheimer’s tend to focus on one facet of their identity that they cling to. Often times, it is career. For my grandmother, it is her Christian faith. Every day is a blessing to her, and I think her trust in God gives her the serenity to face the shifting patterns of her reality without fear or anger.
Do you have/have you had a loved one suffering?