Every summer, it’s the same story. I make some comment on Facebook about “heading back East for vacation” and my East Coast relatives post a thousand comments, most of which go something like this: “Don’t forget to visit Meemaw!”
As if I could forget my grandmother, my “Meemaw.” This is, after all, the woman who took care of me whenever I caught the flu or chickenpox or a bad case of “kids-bully-me-and-I-don’t-want-to-go-to-school-today-itis” in elementary school. The woman who taught me how to play cards and grow tomatoes in the garden and drink my coffee black. The woman who knit exquisite little baby dresses and cardigans when I told her I was pregnant. The woman who always had time for a hug or a long storytelling session on the front porch or a picnic by the river.
I could never forget my Meemaw. But she’s forgotten me.
In the beginning, Alzheimer’s stole little things from my Meemaw. She would drop stitches in her knitting and forget to fix them. She would go to the kitchen where she’d spent the past five decades preparing things like pig’s stomach and huge jars of pickled beets-n-eggs and she’d forget why she’d left the living room.
Eventually, the disease snatched bigger things. A few years ago, when my now teenaged daughter, Eva, was still a little girl, I was sitting with Meemaw on her back porch, watching our relatives swim in her backyard pool. We were knitting together. I would cast-on for her — the woman who used to sit down and create the most beautiful Barbie clothes for me, without even using a pattern — and she would knit a straight line. I liked to think we were knitting scarves. It made the reality of the situation a little less depressing. I remember that, after about 30 minutes of complete silence, she turned to me and said, “They tell me I had a husband and that he died.” And I remember thinking that if Meemaw could forget the abusive, intolerant man she had married (my grandfather), then maybe this horrible disease had its upside.
“Yes,” I told her. “He did. But look! There are your three children and I’m your granddaughter and that little girl in the pool is Eva, your great-granddaughter! She has your eyes and your laugh, Meemaw.”
She would nod and smile, her hands working the stitches. “They tell me I had a husband and that he died.”
These days, Meemaw lives in a specialized home for people with dementia and Alzheimer’s. I go, with my two aunts, to visit her there. “Mommy? Mommy?” my one aunt coos at this tiny, limp woman in the bed. “Mommy? It’s time to wake up!” Lying there, with her eyes closed, it’s easy to imagine that my grandmother is just taking a nap. That, when she opens her eyes, she’ll suck in her breath and laugh that belly laugh that I love. “Oh! Kelly! You’ve come to visit!” she’ll say, wrapping me in a tight hug. “Are you hungry? Let me get you something to eat!”
But when she finally opens her eyes, the reality of the situation hits me hard, in the center of my chest, makes me hold my breath and fight back tears. Her eyes are dead. The color is gone. The twinkle is missing. She sits, slowly, staring at nothing, recognizing no one. And my aunts take her by both elbows and help her stand. I hold her hand as she shuffles, zombie-like, into the hallway and toward the center of the care facility.
There are rooms decorated like ‘50s diners and old-fashioned front porches there. And if you couldn’t hear the mumbling, the screaming, the snoring, or the awful alarms that go off every time one of the men or women in the wheelchairs tries to stand up on their own … well, then this scene might look like you’ve stumbled into a regular assisted living facility.
But this is no regular facility. This is where all of the grandmas and grandpas who don’t remember their families come to die. This is where my Meemaw sits every afternoon and evening, her hand pounding at the table, her eyes not focusing on anything or anyone in particular.
I feel like I’m going to pass out. My one aunt is cheerful, showing me around the place, talking about her new kitchen remodel. My other aunt is more realistic. She talks to the nurse about reducing my Meemaw’s medications. “She’s so drugged up!” she tells me. “But it was either drug her or kick her out.”
Apparently, my quiet, always friendly grandmother has taken on a new personality with this disease. A personality that likes to throw hot coffee in people’s faces and smear her feces on walls. It’s an angry personality. So they drugged her into submission.
I don’t blame Meemaw for being angry. She got a raw deal on life — a mother dead before she’d even become a teenager; a mean husband who yelled at her and their three children all day and night; a life that revolved around small town gossip and television programming; and Alzheimer’s just a few years after she’d known true freedom from my abusive grandfather. If it were me, I’d throw feces, coffee and whatever else I could get my hands on. I scream and yell, too.
While we’re sitting at the lunch table, my aunt spoon-feeding Meemaw and tending to her running nose, a couple of my grandmother’s friends join us. Doc is a giant of a man. A former ob-gyn who can’t remember why people call him “Doc.” When my Meemaw starts pounding the table — she does this constantly, as if she’s trying to tell us something — Doc pounds too. But then the pounding seems to anger Doc and he tries to get away from us. The ear-splitting alarm goes off and an aide comes around, pulling Doc back into his wheelchair by the back of his pants and wheeling him into another room.
After Doc leaves, Dottie joins us at the table. She and my grandmother lived near each other for decades, raising children and dealing with mean men and still laughing over the best parts of life. Dottie has just come from the beauty parlor and looks ready for a day of shopping. She sits down at the table and an aide comes over with a hot lunch for her. “Watch out,” my aunt warns me. “She’s a spitfire.” A few minutes into her stay at the lunch table, Dottie lets loose with a string of obscenities and decides to leave without touching the salmon and mashed potatoes on her plate. I watch her shuffle into a corner of the room and wonder if she might have Tourette’s in addition to dementia, but my aunt assures me that Dottie was always like this. “She had a mouth on her even before,” she tells me. “She’s a tough lady.”
Meemaw was not a tough lady. She was gentle. And, despite the raw deal on life, never seemed bitter. She was always laughing and smiling and feeding people. I would come back from college and visit her. We would sit on her porch swing and drink coffee and trade stories. She told me that my grandfather only became mean after the babies came. She thought he had PTSD from the Korean War. I thought the fact that he never saw sunlight working the night shift at a steel mill probably had something to do with it, too. Either way, his nasty disposition did nothing to blemish Meemaw’s sunny one.
When my grandfather, a diabetic who didn’t take care of himself, had both legs amputated and was confined to a bed in the back of the house, Meemaw kept a baby monitor on the front porch so she could hear her husband and still swing her day away, drinking coffee and talking to neighbors. I was on the porch once, having come to visit from New Jersey, where I worked as a reporter for a business magazine. My grandmother and I were talking and, of course, drinking coffee, when the baby monitor went off. “Phyllis!” my grandfather yelled. “Get in here, goddamnit!” Meemaw smiled at me and said, “Just a minute.” I thought she was going to go inside and do whatever it was that he wanted. But, instead, she walked over to the baby monitor and turned it off. “There,” she said. “He can wait.” And I whooped with joy for her small act of rebellion.
I wish she had had more moments of rebellion. That she had flown on a plane or seen the ocean. That she had been able to enjoy her final years on her front porch, surrounded by family, her hands working balls of yarn into afghans or baby dresses. Seeing her the way she is now, no smile on her face or laugh gurgling out of her … it dislodges something heavier than simple sadness or grief inside of me. My mind imagines all sorts of scenarios to deal with these heavy emotions: I envision smothering her with a pillow as she sleeps to end her days of hell. I picture breaking her (along with Doc and Dottie) out of this sterilized joint and taking them to a remote island where they can yell obscenities at the top of their lungs and throw sand at each other. I imagine that I also have this disease hiding in my brain … that I can no longer remember Eva or her future children.
I don’t cry. Instead, I walk Meemaw into the Alzeimer’s facility’s living room, bypassing an old man in a wheelchair, whom my aunt assures me will “grab my ass if I get too close.” We sit together on a couch and I put my arm around her, holding her hand in mine. She leans into me and puts her head on my shoulder.
“Do you like it here, Meemaw?” I ask, not expecting an answer. She lifts her head and looks at me. For one millisecond, something inside of her sparks to life. She only says one word, but it’s enough: “Yes.”