An Essay About My Grandmother and Her Alzheimer’s called “Number One”
My earliest memory of her—rocking me in her arms, singing You are My Sunshine, patting my butt to the rhythm of the rocking—her velvety hands, smelling of Avon hand cream, caressing me, patting me, loving me. Later, whenever I visited her, I remember her always showering me with gifts: perfect outfits she spent hours sewing, little girl jewelry, modeling clay, personalized books with me as the leading character, and a doll that crawled. My step-mother was fed up with how many dolls I received from her, but my grandmother bought them for me anyway. She loved me. I was the center of her universe. As a child, a teen, and then a young adult, I knew—when I was in her presence—the world was just right and safe and good.
I miss her. I miss calling her when I have news. Sometimes I make up conversations in my mind. “Hi, Gram. Guess what? Remember how much my eyes have been bothering me? Well, I found out that I have severe dry eye. All these years, I never knew that’s what it was.” She’d say, “Oh, no. That’s just horrible. You poor thing. I hope they can figure out what to do to help your eyes.”
Or maybe I want to tell her about someone I’m dating. But, I really don’t date anymore, so I guess that’s one conversation I don’t have to make up in my head. Maybe I just want to cry to her and say, “Gram, the last 6 years have been so hard…I miss having you to lean on. I miss you taking care of me and I’m tired of taking care of you. I love you, but the burden of your house and finances and the fights trying to get you in the shower and taking care of Grandpa and getting you on Medicaid and finding a nursing home—it’s just all too much. I’m tired and I just want you to hold me and tell me everything is going to be okay, like you used to.”
I guess, technically speaking, I could drive over to the nursing home she’s in now and have any one of these conversations with her—well, maybe not the one about taking care of her. She wouldn’t understand because she doesn’t know she’s sick. But certainly we could have a chat about the dry eyes. She’d say exactly what I know she would. Yet, somehow it’s not the same because, one minute later, she won’t remember the conversation we just had. So, the comfort I used to get, and the best friend she used to be, are gone. But, I still tell her things anyway. It makes her happy to hear about my life and it gives me a little glimmer of how things used to be.
They call Alzheimer’s “The Long Good-Bye”. It’s true. You say good-bye a little at a time. You miss your loved one and then feel guilty because he or she is sitting in front of you. I’m lucky, though—my Gram still knows who I am. She still lights up when I walk into the room and brags about me to her family and friends. She’s told me the story of the day I was born more times than my mother has. She always tells the tale with her arms cradled like she’s rocking me to sleep. “You were born and I just felt like you were mine. I knew you were mine. God gave you to me and I had meaning in my life like I never had before. All the nuns in the hospital thought you were my baby. You were my angel and you were all that I thought about. I hated to leave you with your parents. “
And who’s to blame her for not wanting to leave me with my parents? When I was born, my mom had just turned 17; my father, 19. They were kids who had no idea what to do with a baby. It must have been hard for Gram to leave me, knowing my life was not going to be the calm, comfortable life she’d give me if she could. She worried about me constantly. My parents were dreadfully poor, so Gram would try to help as much as she could. She bought fans because our trailer was too hot and bought me clothes, toys, and blankets. She had a way of stepping in and filling in the gaps—not just when I was a child, but for most of my life. She protected me. She cherished me. I constantly felt her love.
Gram always tells me, “You are my number one!” and holds up her index finger to punctuate the point. I’ve never felt more loved by anyone. Luckily, that hasn’t changed since she got sick. Thank goodness she’s still “there” enough to know she loves me.
Gram is happy now in the beautiful nursing home I chose for her. She was depressed at first and cried every day. She wanted to go home, even though she couldn’t always articulate that sentiment. I felt horrible guilt when I wasn’t there with her every day. But, now she has a friend, Charlotte, who wears funny hats and hobbles around using her walker. Charlotte doesn’t talk much, but breaks out into song in response to anything you say to her. If Gram says to me, “Cathy, your dog is so cute!” Charlotte starts singing, “How much is that doggie in the window?” Then Gram lights up and starts singing, too. When they aren’t singing, they laugh at each other’s senseless jokes for hours. They are so crazy about each other that they aren’t even allowed to sit together at meals because they never shut up long enough to eat.
Sometimes I visit and we hang out in her room. I lie down across the bed while she sits in her wheelchair and we fantasize about what trips we want to take—sometimes it’s to places she’s been or sometimes places she’ll never see, like Hawaii or Europe. Instead of letting her feel sad and trapped because she can’t just hop in her car and drive, I initiate imaginary trips. We ate lunch on the sidewalk of a French cafe, chatting and people-watching. We drove the English countryside, looking at the rolling hills and farmers with their sheep. We traveled across Colorado and New Mexico in a fast car—she’s driving of course, with her foot to the floor.
Sadly, though, some days when I go visit her, she’s so enamored with Charlotte that she forgets my dog and I are even there. Talking to me, she’ll turn her head to hear something Charlotte has said. The next thing I know, she’s rolling down the hall in her wheelchair, laughing and looking up at Charlotte as they head to Charlotte’s room to eat candy and tell their secrets to one another. I try to tell myself that it’s wonderful she’s so happy now and that she no longer relies on me to make her happy all the time, but later I cry because it hurts to not be “number one” today.
Several months ago she told me that we were soul mates. “Yes,” I said, “I know,” with a nod and a smile. I’m not sure how I know, but I know she and I are connected spiritually—always have been, always will be. I know I’ll be as close to her in death as I have been in life. I feel such a sweet comfort in that knowing.
I don’t think I’ll have any regrets when she dies—no wishing I had done this or said that. I’ve said everything I need to say. I’ve loved as much as I can. I’ve washed her hair in the sink like she used to wash mine as a child. I’ve curled her hair hundreds of times, just the way she likes it, and told her how beautiful she is—as she did with me when I was a kid. I’ve bathed her, cooked her favorite meals, and listened to her stories, much as she bathed me, baked my favorite cherry cheesecake, and listened to my stories about boys. I just hope I’ve been able to return the favor and give her the sense that life is just right and safe and good.
Originally published at A Long Story Short and as “Missing Her” in The Human Touch Journal at University of Colorado Denver Anschutz Medical Campus