My local NPR station aired a story yesterday about a man and his struggles with early onset Alzheimer’s. It was a sad one and made me think of my grandmother, a subject I have been largely afraid to write about. On the suggestion of someone special to me, here is one of my first attempts:
It was a dingy place. I’d been there more times than I want to remember. I skipped the stairs and used the cement wheelchair ramp to get to the rectangle patio. Passing a family as they visited in the sun, forcing myself to smile, I made eye contact with the father and nodded my head. The edges of his lips turned up, and he smiled and nodded back at me in a way that still makes me wonder why we were both faking our emotions.
It was a horrible place. I swung open a large wood door and walked by two silver-haired daydreamers, both of them in wheelchairs. Neither of them smiled back. The woman behind the sign in sheet did, though. I knew where I was going. I turned to the right and went down the hall, without stopping to sign in or say hello. I wasn’t in the mood for hello. I remember that period as one of the longest goodbyes of my life. It took years. It was painful to watch; and it was not a happy place.
The first few rooms where always the worst to walk by. An EMT crew transferring someone from a stretcher to a hospital bed. A man peeing in a plastic bottle, unable to get up and take two steps to the bathroom door. Twelve separate rooms with the nurse light blinking in unison with a buzzer that sounded like a submarine was about to sink. People moaning and yelling for very good reasons, which I was afraid to ask about. Most of the visitors chairs were empty. Even the full ones seemed to have empty people inside them, with hollow eyes, and those same fake smiles. People went to this place to die.
I passed twenty-eight rooms before I turned my head, and then my body, again to the left. I walked through the open door of room number 29. One of the two visitor’s chairs was taken. My father’s eyes said more than my words ever will. He always calls me son. He’ll say “hello son,” or “it’s good to see you son.” I’m not sure exactly how he said it that time. I only remember thinking that my dad would never hear those words again, not the way that I always do. His mother would not worry about him for much longer. She laid in bed, unable to communicate, in a place where people went to die.
A pacemaker, four strokes, two aneurysms, a heart attack, and my grandmother had made it home from every one of them. Her living had been assisted by intensive care units and hospitals, acute recovery centers, nursing homes, and my dad, rotating in that order, for about three years. At this point in my grandma’s life, her speech was unintelligible. Aside from a word here and there she just kept rolling sounds like she was continually stuttering. It was very hard to sit with her. I always felt like she knew who I was. I always felt like she loved me… up until her last aneurysm.
She was hanging in a delicate balance between keeping her blood thin enough to avoid heart attacks, but thick enough to allow brain function. Her neurologist and cardiologist fought over medications, treatments and doses. It didn’t matter though. She was not looking good. My dad and his bothers had decided to follow her wishes. When I heard my dad say that they were going to take her off of life support, I thought the earth would stop moving, that time would stand still. It didn’t.
I remember picking up and holding her right hand. I could feel her pulse, pumped by machines. Her heart was beating faster than it ever had before. Her hand was squeezing mine like she never wanted to let it go. And all I could do was cry at the edge of her bed.
— Lee St1 —