One of the most important and by far the most influential people in my life has been my Grandmother. Gram. Just the thought of her or simply saying, "Gram", gives me the warmest feeling. Her love, kindness and encouragement for me has, time and again, reminded me how blessed I am. I wonder if she ever knew what an incredible role she played in my life.
I am luckier than most, I guess, that my Gram is still with us. I have trouble saying this because, I am not sure, just how with us she really is. She has been, for sometime now, suffering from dementia. The worst has been the last year. She took a pretty harsh fall and hit her head, aggravating and advancing the disease further to her current state. Her short-term memory is poor. She still remembers most of us. It's the newest additions to the family that are lost to her. As well as dinner and lunch dates or parties that are on her calendar.
It has been a tough year for me. I have been racked with guilt. To the point where it is hard for me to see her. Although, I know I am not directly responsible for the state she is in today, I often find myself wondering, "if only".
I was always close with my Gram. And in the past ten years, since motherhood hit, even more so. After the age of 7 or so, I wasn't able to see her as much as I would have loved to. The years before then, we spent quite a bit of time together. I loved being at Grandma & Granddad's so much that, when it was time to leave, I would "forget" something so it could get mailed back to me. When it was returned, I would soak in the smell. It was a mixture of pipe tobacco (the sweetest smell!), wood (my grandfather was a carpenter) and just goodness that comforted me in so many ways. I knew her handwriting and felt instant love when a letter or card came addressed to me. My Grandparents had built a big red house out in the hills of Bolivar, NY. When you stepped onto the deck, you could hear the leaves softly rustle as a mild breeze moved through the trees just before it brushed across your cheeks and through your hair. Oh, and the scent of the fresh air! I loved it so much that, when my parents moved us from Tonawanda to Orchard Park (where they bought a house with wooded property), the first morning we awoke in the new house, I immediately went to the back porch to see if I could drink in the same sweetness as I enjoyed in Bolivar. It was pretty darn close, but could never be the same. Because at Grandma and Granddad's, I was safe and free.
When I was about 20, my Granddad (who was wonderful to me as well) passed away. While Gram remained in The Big Red House, she was rarely there. Shortly after my Granddad's passing, one of her daughters, my Godmother and Aunt, Kath, was diagnosed with cancer, again. Over the next seven years, Gram would dedicate her time to helping and caring for Kath, who lived in Kentucky. She did so until Aunt Kath lost her battle with breast cancer. Gram returned home. To The Big Red House where she carried on with her life. She enjoyed her local friends, meeting her kooky, lovable and fun sisters, visiting with her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. She advised, listened, shared recipes and her love.
At some point in the past six years, Gram decided it was time to move. The house was getting too much for her. Although she had been told this long before, she needed to be ready herself. She was very independent. So, to my delight, she moved to an apartment that was only three miles from my house (By the way, I bought a house that offered that same sweet smell, almost). Everyone helped to get her settled. I was thrilled. I've got Gram!
My Grandmother and I are very much alike. We share the same interests such as photography, sewing, cooking, baking, planning and constructing. She was also very good at planning large meals and parties. She appreciated my knack for the fine details and always complimented me on how beautiful everything looked and tasted. She often took pictures of my place settings and food. Gram ALWAYS had a camera in her hand.
There is a funny story between Gram and me. When I was in 9Th grade and was taking Home Economics, we were to bring in a favorite recipe from home. The recipe I chose was Dutch Apple Cake. Gram made this all the time and I loved it! About 5 years ago, after apple picking, Gram came over for dinner. I asked her if she wanted to help make the Dutch Apple Cake. As we worked in the kitchen together she said, "Rach, have I ever told you where I got this recipe from?". I replied, "No Gram, I don't think you ever have!". She went on: "When I was in 8Th grade, this was the recipe the Home Economics teacher had us prepare.". You can imagine the surprise and laughter. Not to mention the irony! We had a special bond.
Unfortunately though, my time with Gram was slipping away quickly. She was becoming more and more forgetful. She wasn't taking her medicine (she was also diabetic) and that was making things worse. I wanted so badly to protect her. I wasn't willing to write her off. I knew how much her independence meant to her. I was doing as much as I could to help, knowing it would never be enough. My time was limited. I have 3 small children, a house and job. I was struggling to manage everything. She would come over here and I was so on edge. At times, it was like having another child. I was constantly watching so she wouldn't pick somebody up and then possibly fall. I knew that, aside from potential injuries to herself and the child, she would NEVER forgive herself if she had caused harm to a little one that she loved so much. I had to lie to her about why she couldn't be left with the children so I could run to the store. I hated all of this so much. I just wanted my Gram back!
I tried to organize visits, meal drops, medicine checks all with very little response. I knew I had to be careful. I didn't want the wrong response (prematurely sending her to a nursing home). I felt very strongly, that if I could keep her meds regulated, she would get better. There was just no way to make this happen. Remember, in all this, I am just the granddaughter who doesn't know what she is talking about. The truth was, I was the granddaughter who loved her greatly and wanted what she would have wanted for herself. There were others involved, well meaning. But, I still feel that I really knew my Grandmother and what she needed. NO! Wanted! I know that the others where also trying to do what was best. It was a hard situation.
Last September, I got a call from a sleepy, confused Gram. This was not abnormal, as she would often wake from a nap and call me to help her reorientate herself. She wanted to know where her kids were, she said they never came home from school. It was dinner/pick-up/karate time here so it was hectic. I reminded her that her children were grown and where they all were now. Convinced that this was a typical call, I wasn't alarmed. Then she said something that stuck with me, not immediately, but later. She said, "I think I hit my head, can you please give me a call in a couple of hours." I always did. So I said goodbye. After things died down, I sat to give Gram a call back. At first she seemed fine, but then she started talking about her children as though they were still little. Once she started talking about the fact that she thought she was in Mexico, bells went off. I called my mom, her sisters, her son. They, for the most part thought I was overreacting. At one point, my Aunt tried to convince me that she was fine. She had just spoken to Gram and she was doing dishes. "Fine!", I said, "But she thinks she's doing them in MEXICO!". It was well after 9:00 PM. I had to get over there. What if she really did hit her head, what if she had a concussion, what if she had a stroke? So I went.
I knocked on her door and she opened it with a great smile. I noticed the huge bruise on her forehead. I walked in and said, "Gram, please don't be upset with me. If this were me, I know that you would want the same. I am taking you to the hospital to be checked out." She smiled and said, "OK." She was in the middle of eating and I told her to go ahead and finish while I got her things in order (every time I picked her up we had to play Find the Purse. She would hide it for safety and then forget where!) . She sat and ate and we were chatting. When I found her things I was checking for ID, insurance cards, etc. She looked up at me and said, "I'll need my papers if we are returning to the US. We are in Mexico, right?" Thank you Aunt Kath! (Who's in Heaven). I needed that sign, that I was doing the right thing. Off we went...not before I noticed that there was only a quarter of the Lemon Meringue pie left. I had taken her shopping the day before and she bought it then. Remember, she is diabetic.
I went to the hospital with her and stayed until they sent me home for sleep at 6:00AM. The next morning my Uncle went in and I returned to visit later. I was so upset. She wasn't at all the same as when I had left her. I stayed there to wait for the doctor. Gram was in another time. She knew who I was, but in her mind, she was mothering her four young children. What had I done? Did she have a stroke and I didn't pick up on the signs? She told me she had a bump on her head. Why didn't I get to her sooner? This was my Gram. She cared for me and loved me and I let her down. I was too busy in my own little world and Gram needed me. She has never been the same since.
It is suspected that the combination of not taking her meds, along with eating too much of her favorite desert, caused her sugar to rise and she fell (in the bathroom) and hit her head on the sink or tub. It was a pretty good bump. I wasn't there. I could have brought her here for the day. I can't tell you how often these thoughts run through my mind. And when I see her, despite her smile and tight embrace for me, my heart breaks and I am filled with guilt and sadness. Where is Gram?
Gram never returned to her apartment. I had taken her out for the last time. In fact, she doesn't even recall that apartment or the three years she spent there. It is lost to her. She is now very happily residing in a beautiful assisted living facility. She has made friends (a special man friend!!) and tells me how she likes it there. She talks of selling her house and buying a new car. I have been drastically less worried about her. I know that she is getting her medicine and meals and constant companionship. I don't get to talk to her everyday like I used to because she is often not in her room when I call. That's OK. I know where she is. But I worry that she will forget about me. I also wonder if she feels that I have let her down. I miss her so much. I miss her advise. I miss everything.
Gram turned 80 last October. Before her fall, I was planning a party for her. It is hard for me to see others her age and older out and about, like she should be. Now I fill photo albums with pictures she has kept and taken over many years. Only a fraction of them were left here with me. She lights up each time I give her a new one. Although I know how completely unrealistic it is, part of me hopes that she looks through the memories and well...remembers. What I am grateful for is that she is happy in this state. That her life had these moments engraved in her mind to give her a home of comfort if this was what was to become of her. I know Gram is still here, but I miss her.
I am happy for the time that I had with Gram. I imagine her quickly moving from room to room and the wrinkles she would get in her forehead while in deep thought. Her endless lists and yellow notepads with pencils laid beside them, always ready for her next thought. The cup of coffee that she would loose throughout the house (just like me). The clicking noise she would make while she danced through the kitchen. The Polka music I more than tolerated. It is because of her, however, that I enjoy listening to Andre Rieu. She adored my children and they got to know her well. Gram was a Nursing Home Administrator for years and would often get upset with those that would mar the reputation and name of good nursing homes out there. I know that she must have seen the possibilities that lay before her. The saddest part of all this, is that she is healthy. It is her mind, that got her so far in life, that is now failing her.
I will most likely never know if there was something I could have done to prevent this and give her more of what she deserved. What I do know is that I will spend the rest of her life letting her know how much she means to me. I will laugh with her, listen to her, hold her and love her. The best that I know how. The way she did for me. I love you Gram.