My grandma has been in a nursing home for several years now. The decision to move her there was difficult and painful at best. She adjusted and we adjusted. She made new friends and adapted and we felt like she was safe, it was good. Life reached a new “normal” and we all went about our daily routines.
About three weeks ago she began a decline. She has experienced several over the past couple of years and has always bounced back or, at least, reached a new “normal”. She’s been a little confused, an elderly mind stuck in a relatively healthy body. She has had numerous minor strokes over the past two decades. This last one though, wow! It changed things.
The call came from her favorite nurse. She gently, kindly explained to my mom that perhaps it is time for hospice to be called. It became apparent that my mom, as her POA, needed to go check on her. Now, my parents are getting older themselves, and more and more they need me. I am a newcomer to the Sandwich Generation and not quite established in my role as such.
My dad is not in the best of health himself and it was decided that I would go with my mom to check on grandma. We set out for our 7 hour drive. I drove all but about a half hour of the trip. Normally, mom and I would split the time between us. It seemed odd that she really needed me to drive it all. As I relived the events of the previous twenty-four hours, in actuality, it was my decision to make the trip in the first place. She vacillated between going now or next weekend. I picked now as it appeared time was of the essence. She seemed strangely relieved that I had just taken charge of the situation. I felt as if I had stepped into uncharted territory. It was a new thought process and its apparent discomfort made me dismiss it from consciousness.
We arrived. We met with hospice. Mom signed all of the paperwork. We met with the funeral home where grandma had already made arrangements many years ago. We received information about the dieing process and we began the difficult task of looking death in the face, of saying good-byes and letting go. As I sat holding my mom’s hand, she suddenly looked a little old herself; a little less certain, a little more fragile.
Grandma met us with a blank stare. When she finally accessed her long-term memory and zeroed in on my mom we were relieved. At least she knew who mom was! This was progress! She slept through a lot of the visit. In between were words spoken sporadically as though they were just randomly picked from the air. We tried to derive their meaning in much the same way you try to decode a toddler’s one word sentences. It was sad, just sad, and haunting. She seemed to be teetering on the brink of one world, all the while, gazing cautiously into the next.
We checked into a local hotel that evening. The next day we would try again.
To our surprise, she was more alert the following day. She was able to use three word sentences and express some complete thoughts. One exchange went like this:
Grandma: You have big teeth!
Me: Yes, I do. Mom and dad spent a lot of money on my teeth!
Me: I love you!
This went on throughout the morning with various states of awareness. Suddenly, there was a burst of lucidity, a shot of adrenaline from who knows, or cares, where!
Grandma: Did you graduate?
Me: Yes. I finally made it! (I actually graduated some 19 years ago, but hey).
Grandma: I love you!
Me: I love you too!
We continued to weave in and out of the present with brief stops at various “past’ places along the way: an old college play, the birth of my children, my marriage, states I have lived in over the years, candy she used to keep in her dish, card games and songs, hymns actually. We shared some chocolate and the hour got late. It was almost dinner time and we needed to head for home- another 7 hour drive. Grandma needed to head to the dining room- the new one they moved her to, the one where they feed you.
Good-byes are always hard, but this one, knowing it might be the last one, was about more than I could bear. She kept holding onto me as if she too were afraid of the finality it might hold for us both. This fiercely independent woman now sat with a grip on me that she was unwilling to loose, much like my children did when they were preschoolers trying to “keep me” from leaving them. I lingered a few minutes more. When I finally sucked up all of my remaining strength and walked out of the room I moved quickly, jaw set, eyes forward. I found myself almost running to the door, suddenly gasping for air, clean, cold, thin air, free from the odors of old age. As the sharp wind hit my face, I became aware of the hot, stinging tears running down my cheeks. I had held them in with great effort, but they were suddenly too large a load to shoulder. I walked faster and faster, leaving my mom behind in my hurry. I made it to the car and once again, gained composure, suddenly aware that my mom was also crying and needed my comfort.
And right then, in that moment of enveloping my mom in my own arms, in this awkward reversal of roles, with the northern Illinois wind whipping my scarf in its wake, I stepped across an invisible stage into another of life’s chapters- uncharted territory indeed.
Yes, Grandma. I graduated. Today.