Earlier this year I had to write about losing a grandparent, and now I’m having to do it all over again. I’ve lived 26 years and had all my grandparents alive and healthy the whole time, and was lucky enough to forge strong memories and emotional ties to all of them. I even have a step-mom who became part of the family when I was young, so that added an additional two grandparents for me to know and love all these years. I lost my paternal grandfather in March and was rocked by how sudden it came, but I lost my maternal grandmother last night and even the knowledge that it was going to be coming soon doesn’t help ease the pain of knowing she’s gone now. The hardest and most confusing part of it all is that I feel like I lost my grandmother a long time ago to Alzheimer’s. It started slowly, but over the past few years became more aggressive and I just became another face of a friendly visitor that said hello to her, and I hate that the last years of her life were lived in confusion.
My Grandma Mary was a sweet lady, always kind and never cross with anyone that I ever saw. I grew up seeing her and my grandfather only a couple of times a year due to the distance we lived apart, so it was always especially exciting when they came into town. We’d all go out to dinner, Grandma would spend most of the evening playing and talking with the grandkids – or at least that’s how I remember it. I’ve found lately that I have a colored memory of the past, one that often isn’t quite as realistic as I’d hope. In all likelihood, my grandmother probably spent the majority of her time conversing with the other adults, still paying attention to my cousins and I, but not to the extent that I remember. But that’s how things go when you’re a kid. Even the slightest amount of attention seems like you’re someone’s main focus and that makes memories like this all the more special. Grandma would sometimes look over my homework with me, color with me, and just listen to me tell stories.
When I was ten I got to fly up to Colorado where my grandparents lived and spend a week with them, no parents around. It was such a fun time filled with trips and activities all over the state that I remember to this day. I haven’t thought about that trip very often until recently, but sitting here now and remembering that special time with just us is hard to think about now that she’s gone. After the time spent in Colorado I returned home to tell my mom all about it, reliving all the fun I had as best I could recall. We didn’t have cell phones and cameras readily available then, so there were no pictures to be brought back. Grandma had taken some while I was there, but I didn’t think anything of it – until a few weeks later when a package arrived for me. In it was a small photo album with all the pictures of our trip developed and lovingly slid into place with small handwritten notes of where we’d gone and what we’d done. I especially remember one picture that I’d been allowed to take with the camera, and Grandma captioned it giving me credit for the picture and how well it turned out. Such a small thing, but so very important to me both then and now.
When the Alzheimer’s first started affecting her, it was slow at first. She couldn’t think quite as quickly as she always had, and had trouble remembering little things like food in the microwave that she’d heated up, or what she liked to eat at certain restaurants. When we’d go out for dinner as a group, Grandma would spend a long time just looking at the pages of the menu not being able to make up her mind. Grandpa would eventually remind her what she liked the last time they’d eaten there, or he would just order for her and take the menu away so she could focus on the family present. Growing up I’d never seen them be affectionate with each other, no hugs or kisses when leaving the house, rarely did I ever hear them tell the other they loved them, and it always struck me as odd. As I’ve grown older, I realize that for them it was just unspoken. As of this year they’d been married for 63 years – that’s a lot of time to grow and love someone, and make sure they know it. Perhaps they weren’t as outwardly open as I had seen in other couples or my other grandparents, but that in no way means their love was any less real. Seeing my grandfather these past few years taking care of her, helping her make the decisions she couldn’t remember to make herself, and always being there as a stability point, an anchor for her memory, has changed my view on their relationship entirely. Visiting them recently has been touching to see Grandma practically follow him around the house. If he got up to leave the room, she would notice. There were times she didn’t remember her children, but for the longest time she remembered him. He was a grounding point for her memory, the longest recurring character in her life. But there came a point when even that started slipping, and it became even more clear that we were losing her even faster.
I found out a little over about a month or two ago that it had been decided that Grandma should be moved to a special nursing home for Alzheimer’s patients, one where they could best care for her special needs and watch out for her. Until then a nurse had been coming to the house a few hours a day to take care of her and stimulate her with activities, but it was no longer enough. Before she was moved I made one last visit and am so glad that I did so. She was up and walking around, sometimes smiling, but mostly sitting on the couch watching movies. I sat with her for a little while, holding her hand, and just listening to her tell the people on TV what to do. It made me laugh and she never really seemed aware that she was doing it. Every action on TV earned a criticism or an applaud from her, and her commentary became more important than what was on TV. When a few of us had to go to the store to get groceries for dinner that night I gave her a hug and told her we’d be back shortly. She hugged me back and smiled when she asked if I’d be coming over again. I told her yes, I’d be back for dinner in just a little while, and she smiled and went back to watching TV. She may not have known who I was, but that wasn’t what was important. Even without the crucial memories to remind her who her family was, she was still the same sweet woman who liked having people around and was glad to see you return for a visit.
I started this blog entry over two years ago when everything was getting worse. Two years ago I started an entry about how hard it was to see her declining, but I never could bring myself to sit down and finish it. I cleared what I had written and started anew today, and this is what resulted. I’m lucky that I had the opportunity to know her all these years, and very thankful that I got to see her one last time just a short while ago. I threw myself into genealogy when my grandfather passed away in March, becoming much more interested in my past and where I come from, hating that I’d waited until someone was gone to take an interest. I have so many questions I could have asked him, and I won’t get the chance. Similarly, my grandmother’s family history is a mystery because most of the research on her side of the family tree was lost long ago, and without her memory we had no way of trying to fill in the gaps on names and faces in pictures, or important events of the past. I went into the family tree this morning and updated it with the information of her passing and just sat there looking at the new date I’d input. Until now her record showed a birth date, and that was all. Now there’s an end date, and it hurts to look at it. I’m glad she’s at peace now, and I hope and pray she is somewhere with her memories given back to her and the chance to finally rest easy.
Rest in peace Grandma Mary, I love you.