I was late.
My feet-dragging wasn’t completely accidental; I was truly dreading this, and instead of hurrying myself up to get it over with, I was slowing myself down with one more chore at home. But the inevitable could no longer be avoided and so here I was knocking softly on the door to my Grandma’s room, not waiting for an answer and barely breaking stride as I entered the dimly-lit dorm-sized space.
Granny wasn’t in her usual place in the tweed camel-colored lift chair we’d bought for her when we’d moved her into the assisted living facility two years ago. It was a consolation prize of sorts, I suppose, a band-aid that never came close to covering the loss of her independence and her driver’s license.
She has yet to actually use it for any lifting. Or reclining for that matter. But there she’ll sit day in and day out. Except when I’m coming to pick her up. Then she perches expectantly on the edge, her purse at the ready on the nearby lamp table, shoes on and sometimes even her coat.
But not today.
I found her in the bathroom that’s part of her room. Actually, I smelled her first. She’d had an accident and had gone in there to clean up. And there she stood, staring hollowly at nothing in particular, fingering washcloths and the assorted bottles of lotion and soap that lined her bathroom counter as if she’d never seen such things in all her life.
She blinked at me the same way as I called out her name and began to clean her. Though it was nearly 9:30 in the morning she was still in her nightgown. This is the same woman who once rose at 4:30 a.m. to ensure that she was ready for a trek to the Black Hills that we weren’t picking her up for until 9 a.m. As long as I’ve known her, my Grandma has adhered to a strict regimen of early rising and dressing with the roosters. But that was more than a decade ago, and a lot has changed for the painful since then.
“I’m going to go ahead and go all Bossy Sara on you,” I joked as I pulled out a top and some matching slacks. A more astute observer would have seen through my false bravado, but Granny just laughed as she came back to herself and to me a bit. “I hope you do,” she said, looking around with more focus and purpose now. “I don’t know just what’s what in here.”
The fog soon crept back in. Once dressed, we shuffled over to her chair, and as I helped her down into it, she began to look over her shoulder and out the window. I knelt down in front of her and started working her compression hose up over her calves as she continued to glance over at the window. I’d nearly gotten her shoes on when she finally burst out angrily. “Where’s dad?!?! Why won’t he come in from the barn?!?! He needs to get dressed!”
“Dad” was how she always referred to my grandpa Myron. As a child, I always thought the reference awkward, but as a wife and mom now I fully understand its use. My beloved grandpa died more than 20 years ago, ten days shy of his and grandma’s 50th wedding anniversary. As small town tradition dictates, my mom and her sisters had already published their 1945 wedding picture and their address in the local paper in anticipation of celebrating the milestone with a card shower. There aren’t a lot of things sadder than receiving anniversary greetings for a celebration that never came along with sympathy cards for the husband you weren’t ready to lose.
Taking grandpa with us made sense today. We were preparing for a funeral. Vern– grandpa’s youngest sibling, and from my understanding, the one he adored above the other five — had passed away. As my Granny tells it, Grandpa and one of his older brothers were called to report for basic training in Colorado during WWII, but when the commanding officers realized that their older brother had already been deployed, and they’d left behind their widowed mother to care for their teenage sister and grade-school brother Vern on her own, the officers told my grandpa and his older brother it was up to them to decide which would complete basic training and which would go back home to tend the family farm. My grandpa came home, a decision that, knowing him, I can’t imagine came easy, but I also believe that being brother/dad to Vern for those years bonded them together in a special way.
Granny’s fog cleared again, and we managed the funeral fairly well.
But clarity is fleeting as the threads that hold my Granny’s mind together have begun to unravel. She’s unsure and childlike in a way that I can’t square with the grand old lady who practically raised me. Who used to make Suzanne and I pluck her eyebrows and pick out her hair after she’d walked around with curlers in it for a day. Who used to own so may pairs of high heeled shoes that my grandpa had to build her special shelves to hold them all. Who used to make us each an angel food cake a mile high covered in pink icing that she’d drizzle over the top and down the sides for our birthdays. No one else could do it like that. Trust me. We tried.
This will be our final phase, and it’s a hard, unsatisfying one. I had to take her to the doctor last week, and she asked me where Sara was so many times that I started to doubt my own identity. Or it may have been when the doctor asked her to name her daughters, and she could only come up with Sharon and Jeanie. “Who was my mom?” I asked her. She had no idea, and when I told her the answer, she merely shrugged in an “if you say so” kind of way.
And it was there, in that dingy gray exam room, as Granny failed to come up with correct answers for everything from the city she lives in to what year it is, that it dawned on me that we won’t be traveling this final leg of the journey together. We’ve weathered quite a bit of life over the last decade, Granny and I. I often wonder what our 1986 selves would have thought if we’d known how thoroughly our roles would reverse one day.
It’s moot to wonder now. The dementia that has crept in by nearly imperceptible degrees over the last two years has at long last gathered enough fog to wrap her tightly in its cocoon. It’s an erie and unsettling loss after so many years of having her — and all the things that made her her — reduced to a shell that I can see and touch, but can’t always reach.
It’s my own version of dementia, I suppose.
We will keep at it, she and I. It’s what we do. Because we must. But she’s forever rooted now, and I’ll press forward on her behalf, trusting however imperfectly in a good God who can only do good.
Even in the valley.