I haven't seen my grandmother since March 2012. She is still alive, but very sick. My grandmother's illness first became apparent to me in 2006. It was a fuzzy territory at first though. She always had a batty sense of humor. So she camouflaged her confusion with jokes and laughs, and we were probably too happy to take her word for it. In 2006, my family did what would be our last Thanksgiving trip to Hilton Head all together. I would always drive back home with my grandmother. She and I easily agreed on music and would laugh and gossip about goings-on in the family. The trip usually started with her driving off the island so I could take photos of the sunrise from the bridge. She had done this trip many times and had a strong sense of direction, so I never paid much attention to anything except what Shakira or Britney song I was going to play next. Until I really looked around and thought Where the hell are we?
I asked her if we were still on 95, knowing we were not. She said yep, uh huh that's your dad two cars ahead of us. And she was unusually defensive. And the car two cars ahead was a red convertible with a black person driving. Nowhere near resembling my pasty dad with a reflective baldspot in a white SUV. Her eyes began nervously darting and then she burst out laughing and said I just thought he got really tan on vacation! Around that time, my dad called to ask me if we'd like to stop for a quick breakfast in
When I told him how we managed to get off course, he insisted we stay
put and he come to us. I think he was
worried she had had a mini stroke. Not
to mention, my sense of direction is so bad
he knew I'd be useless finding our way back to I-95. My +/- great great great great greatgrandfather would be horrified driving with me as I can get lost five minutes
from home. So that will not stand out
when/if my cognitive function begins to fail.
As we were sitting and waiting, we were laughing hysterically about our whereabouts and deciding which one of us the supposed rest stop vandals would have their way with first. Soon enough, my parents pulled in and we got resituated with my sister now driving my grandmother's car (I still wasn't trusted to drive). My grandmother was fine for most of the morning, as we talked about what a fun trip it was and planned our upcoming candy making party. Occasionally, there were comments that puzzled my sister and me, We told ourselves she was just tired.
I think back to that day every so often and wonder about my part in it. Could I have helped anything if I hadn't ignored these red flags and brushed it off? Hard to say. It can be easy to give ourselves superpowers in hindsight and believe we could have fixed the unfixable. As time passed, she began to deteriorate rapidly.
During her decline, my mother completely devoted herself to my grandmother's care. Anything and everything she could do, she did. I had just started my own business, building a clientele from almost nothing. With very few clients, I had a lot of time on my hands. As Facebook friends of mine in that time will recall, with the barrage of new boyfriends, slutty selfies, and self-important statuses. But when I wasn't busy being a whore, I was trying to help my mom. By 2011, my grandmother was living in a full-time care facility. Because she was young and physically healthy, she was an unusual patient for this facility. So she was always getting in trouble. They would call my mom and tell her she needed to get there and calm my grandma down. This would happen all hours of the day and night. Luckily, I was often able to go up in my mother's place.
When I would walk in, my grandma was usually in a nurse's face or taunting another resident. The awful thing about these situations is that they are funny. Imagine a nursing home dining room with some people milling around talking to themselves, some watching The Lawrence Welk Show and then my grandma telling some poor old lady that she's fat and will never get a man. What can you do but laugh? Anyway, when I would walk in my grandma would scowl at me from across the room. Then, as I got closer, she would light up and suddenly become sweet and agreeable. She'd introduce me to the woman she was just bullying and say isn't she just the cutest thing?! Sometimes she knew my name, sometimes she knew my face, but she seemed to always know she loved me--whoever the hell I was. I'd say Okay, Nana, I'm busting you out and she'd dance around and sometimes stick her tongue out at her poor friend/victim. At this time, she could still walk with ease.
We'd walk to my car and she loved my car. She'd say oh honey! You must be so rich! That seemed to give her great satisfaction, so I went with it. I'd roll the windows down and we'd blast On the Street Where You Live (her favorite) or Motown. She would close her eyes and sing along and seem so grateful for the fresh air. Then I'd take her to Dairy Queen for a hot dog and Wendy's for a Frosty. She always wanted me to tell the Wendy's employees that Dave Thomas wanted to marry her but she said no. That story has never been verified, by the way. This is a bizarre thing about Alzheimer's and dementia, as I'm sure you know. She could remember Dave Thomas clearly and not her family. We'd drive around and talk about Christmas or how cute my cousins are. There were times I knew she didn't understand what I was talking about, but she enjoyed the pleasant tone and energy. This went on for about a year.
Her condition began to freefall. In the span of a few months, she went from being able to walk and talk to being almost completely unable to move. She has Lewy Body Dementia, which takes a rapid physical toll in addition to mental decline.
In 2012, she had been moved to a different facility. She required far more care than her previous memory care assisted living could handle. Her condition was beyond the point she could be taken out without a special wheelchair and hoist. My mom was tortured by the thought that she couldn't get out of the building for even a breath of fresh air. She asked the facility if there was any way she could take her out for just a ride. They felt strongly against it. My mom, being the lifelong rule follower, tried to accept this.
My mom's birthday is in March. That year, particularly, I knew we must do something to buoy her spirits. As I'm sure any of you know who have been in her position, there is not a moment's break from the worry about your sick loved one. It was a record-setting super warm March that year. Completely unheard of for us--weeks of glorious temperatures in the 80s. It was about a week before my mom's birthday, and I was perusing a garden center. I was asking my friend for gift suggestions for my mom. It suddenly hit me as I was admiring a wisteria (that I bought and killed when it turned cold again). Duh. Obviously, the only thing my mom wanted was to get my grandma out. Breathing fresh air, hearing music, feeling the sun. I called my sister at work and said I might need a lot of money for a gift for mom. As I figured I would need a handicap-equipped bus, a driver, and a nurse. I had no idea how much this would cost, but knew my sister would foot the bill. My sister and I are a good team in that way. The only thing we disagreed on was that she wanted to tell our dad. Knowing we were planning a granny-heist, I wanted as few accomplices as possible. Hell or high water, Nana was coming to the party. My sister reluctantly surrendered on telling our dad and handed over her credit card. To my surprise, I wouldn't need it.
I figured I would at least try to do this on the up and up before I went about forcibly abducting my grandmother with hired help and a bus. I called and spoke with the head nurse, Gayle. Gayle gave me a few Nos before she said Let me see what I can do before she said Yes, if... Gayle told me that the facility had a bus equipped to transport my grandmother and they could bring her if the temperature was above 70F, and there was not any rain. Any water on the lift equipment could have made the process dangerous. So if you live outside
Ohio, you may not realize what
exceptionally outrageous conditions these are for Ohio in March. If it gets that warm in March, it usually
lasts four minutes and is then interrupted by a snowstorm.
Incredibly, the weather cooperated. I'll never forget the look on my mom's face when she walked in and realized my grandmother was there. It was first shock at the surprise party, then disbelief when she saw my grandmother, and then happy tears followed by sad tears and back to happy tears. By this point, my grandmother was very far gone. But there were still tiny bits of her that would come out. She was so happy. Amid all this, I made dinner for everyone. I remember burning the chicken and the cupcakes were dry. Just this once, however, not even I was focused on the food.
A short while after that, my mom told my siblings and me that she did not want us to see our grandmother anymore. She had become much more sick and my mother felt that she was no longer there. This was a horrible ordeal for my mother to be facing. She felt, as my grandmother's decision maker, that she knew my grandmother would not want us to see her at this point. If she responds to visitors, it is very negatively and is distressing for her.
|left to right: my grandpa in his safari leisure suit, my grandmother, |
great grandmother likely in Lilly Pullitzer,
and one of her many husbands. I think this was Chuckie-Poo.
My grandmother was a beautiful woman. She had a modeling career, and worked very hard on her looks. She was never seen with a hair out of place or her makeup off. Some may find this shallow, but I believe her beauty was one of the most important components to her existence. She was also kind, smart, accepting, and funny. My mother knows that my grandmother would want to be remembered that way. My parents still go and see her every Friday. The visits are hard on both of them, but particularly my mother. She always feels she's not doing enough. The ugly part is that there is nothing else she can do. My small part in the matter is making dinner for my family on Friday nights. Attendance ranges from three to eight. With working Saturdays, I got used to quiet Friday nights long ago (after finally learning that dragging my hungover ass into work at 7AM just isn't worth it). We linger around the table and I watch my mom recover slightly. My grandpa usually manages to fit in his Swiss whorehouse story, and we are able to laugh. Sometimes he expresses his wishes to have been a better husband, my mom looks around and thinks about how proud my grandma was of her nice family. The gravity of these moments is always observed by Lin, my grandpa's partner of 30 years (he and my grandmother divorced long ago). Lin was a truly great friend to my grandmother and graciously shared my grandpa with her long after the divorce. Lin raises her glass for a toast and says To
, how we wish you were here. She wishes, as we all wish, there was more
she could do. Nancy
|Her biggest campaign appeared in Vogue-September 1955|
|The back cover|
Today is my grandmother's birthday. Of course, I wish things were different. I wish I could help her. I wish she were free. My name is Stephen Andrew partly because my grandmother always wanted an Andrew. My mother always wanted a Stephen, and knew how thrilled my grandmother would be for her first grandson to be an Andrew. For as long as she could, she called me my Andrew. What I can do is remember and appreciate her life. Her legacy of kindness, her uncontrollable laugh, and her grace. I'll remember her that way.
|Love, Your Andrew|