I grew up with two very different grandmothers. On my dad’s side, I have one who is eternally young and fighting the aging process with everything she’s got. From her tattooed eyeliner to her plastic surgery, she’s determined to be her best 30-year-old self even as she’s pushing 80. She teaches yoga twice a week at our local golf course and still wears platform wedges to church every Sunday. On my mother’s side, I had the quintessential grandmother. She wore her age well and proudly, and made us dinner twice a week in her home. She never fought the hands of time, but embraced them and made the most of them. We lost her in 2003 after a quick and unexpected heart issue took hold. For the majority of my adolescent life, then, my other grandmother was my only guide to how an “elderly” person should act.
Then, I met the boy who would become my husband. We met in high school a few months after my maternal grandmother passed away. He quickly introduced me to his paternal grandmother, Dolores, because he thought we’d get along famously. Boy, was he right. Dolores was everything that I loved and missed about my own grandmother. She smelled like powder and perfume and always had rosy rouge painted onto her cheeks. I rarely went to visit her when she didn’t have a pie baking in the oven, her crochet work out, or her embroidered sweaters hanging on the clothesline. She was generous with her love and, as she’d never had a daughter, poured it on me. She’d bake me whole pies and drive them to my house just because, and when I had my daughter in 2014, she’d go to the Dollar Store and get her outfits to dress up in. I spent many days as a newlywed, then as a new mom, holed up in her living room just taking everything in. She’s the one who taught me how to knit, how to bake a pound cake, and how to cut azalea stems without tearing your hands up.
Then, one night in February 2017, she got up to use the bathroom and while she was up, she headed to the kitchen to get a Diet Coke in a glass bottle and a pack of Nabs. It was an innocent midnight snack, akin to the kind I like to indulge in when I’m up late writing. Yet, on her way back to the bedroom, she took a tumble and ended up breaking her elbow. What should have been a quick visit to the ER and perhaps a short hospital stay was exacerbated into a year-long stint at a recovery center after she developed a massive bedsore due to neglectful nursing care. When she was finally ready to come home, we discovered she’d forgotten how to walk after so much time off her legs. Or, at least that’s what we thought. She entered rehab to learn that basic skill all over again, but when she refused to participate, we realized what we’d understood on some level: It wasn’t exactly that she’d forgotten, but she just didn’t want to anymore.
In fact, she didn’t want to do much of anything, so she stayed in bed. As she stayed there, her bedsore was unable to heal and grew into her bones and blood so deeply she became septic. She entered the local nursing home at the end of the year, where she remains. She spends her days waiting for the meal bell to ring, and anticipating visits from her husband, who makes the short drive faithfully every morning and stays by her side until the sun goes down. I went to go visit her when she first arrived at the facility, with my two kids in two. I asked if she’d like to see pictures of the kids that I’d taken at the playground that week, and she shooed the phone away, shaking her head “no.” This was the same woman who, just a few months prior, had made a dozen cupcakes with pink sprinkles because they are my daughter’s favorite, and who’d picked up a singing teddy bear at the grocery store for my newborn son. She was doting to a fault and loved to spoil her great-grandchildren. The idea that she wouldn’t even want to see them now shook me to my core. That’s when we all began to realize that her ailments weren’t simply physical, but mental as well. End-of-life depression is very real and can wreak havoc on both an aging individual as well as his or her family. It took me quite a few visits to realize how to best interact with Dolores. Now, I let her lead me in conversation, which she’s doing with ease. She’ll ask about my job and my family, and soon enough, we’re talking naturally about the babies. Yet, I still have visits when I leave with a heavy heart, knowing that it was an especially rough day for her. She misses her home, her family and the life she once knew and I’m just her granddaughter-in-law, helpless to change the situation at hand.
So I do what I can do, and I do it fiercely. I love her and pray over her and make sure she knows how special we all think she is. We celebrate the little things, like her new perm or my new pedicure, and don’t focus too much on the elephant in the room looming over us. In some ways, we’re still the same two people having a conversation in her living room, though we’re both incredibly different now, as is the environment. Still, I’ll cherish these times with her and make the most of them, supporting her as best I can, and doing so with love every step of the way.