These three lovely ladies are, L to R, Julia, Grandma Jean and Liz. Seconds after I put my camera away, Julia asked if she had smiled showing her teeth, to which Grandma replied with one of the best smiles I’ve seen since I’ve been here. Curses to not capturing it on film!
Liz and Julia take care of Grandma Jean during the day. They get her up, help her do her exercises, bathe her, get her breakfast and turn on her favorite morning game shows. They give her her meds, adjust her position every 2 hours, hold her hand and generally keep her happy and in good spirits if at all possible.
From the living room, we can hear over the monitor them in her bedroom asking her questions to prompt her memory and keep her sharp. They are loving and encouraging and we are so lucky to have them. Grandma Jean can be feisty on a good day and will refuse to eat for one of her children or grandchildren, but somehow, Liz can make the food sound so appetizing that Grandma will want to eat some in spite of herself. But after refusing food for a few days, she’ll have a morning where she requests quite adamantly some french toast. And on those days, Joe practically skips to the kitchen and whips some up for her. She eats 6 small bites and we all cheer.
Over the past few weeks I’ve seen good days and bad days with Grandma. It’s heartbreaking to watch someone you love get weaker and weaker. She sometimes can’t scratch her own nose, her arms are too tired and heavy. She is always so appreciative of anything we do for her. Sometimes she’s in pain but can’t tell us where. She frequently is in the middle of telling you something and loses her train of thought or loses the words that come next, or replaces words in a word salad kind of way. She talks to people in the room that we can’t see and is confused about what year it is or the time of day. You start to wonder if she understands anything anymore.
Then, just when you feel a little sorry for her, she finds her charm and wit, and for a time you forget the hospital bed and the catheter and all the pain and indignity that comes along with dying, and you witness a completely lucid moment.
Days ago, as Joe walks in the room – “I still say you look good in orange!”
A few days later, Joe forgets exactly what she said and says to her, “And now your favorite color is orange.”
Grandma says, “No. I said orange is my favorite color on you!” (emphasis hers)
Joe says, “Remember yesterday a friend came over with her little boy?” And Grandma remembers his name, having only seen him for a few moments. This after a night of practically no sleep and mild hallucinations.
The second morning in the hospital being woken up every 2 hours and totally exhausted, not being able to tell me where or how her pain hurts, feeling helpless and murmuring, “I just want to die,” a few times, the doctor comes in and she turns on the charm, being witty and funny and smiling. The doctor asks her how she’s doing and she says, “Well, I’ve seen better days, and she’s (gesturing to me) seen better nights!” Then, when Joe walks in to say good morning, she says, “Joe! You look tired! I hope you get something to eat.” Then she smiles.
This morning, after a hellaciously painful prior evening, she eats a good (8 bites of cream of wheat and a few bites of toast and a few sips of tea) breakfast. I, inanely, say, “You ate a good breakfast.” To which she replies, “I know! I’m the one who ate it!” And then she smiles that smile that makes you forget the agony she was in 12 hours ago.
I don’t have the time and history with her the others do. I met her only 8 years ago and have only this small slice of what and who she is. Her children and my husband tell me stories of her younger versions, before and after the major debilitating stroke she had in ’82, which she fought as hard as anything to come back from, crawling, then walking with assistance, then finally feeding herself. Grandpa Joe, or The Chief as he was sometimes known as, took great care of her, doing most of the cooking and cleaning and shopping.
When the much beloved Chief passed a year and a half ago after his fearless battle with cancer, her care fell to her children. The 6 of them have made it possible to keep her almost exclusively at home, which is her wish. She has a history of chemical imbalance manifesting as depression and anxiety and being cared for in a facility by strangers makes her inconsolable. I’m sure there are other families that pull together to take care of an aging loved one, but I don’t know any that have done it so willingly and so well. They all take turns supporting and caring in any way they can including alternating nightly shifts after work every night. Her care needs have ramped up since Joe and I have been here in San Diego, almost as if the Universe had timing in mind, since able bodies were needed and we were able bodies manifested.
This morning I thought of my Grandma Phelps who needed care and passed on when my children were very small and my (now ex)husband traveled 3 weeks out of the month. It was impossible for me to assist with taking care of her and my heart ached with the need to help and show her love in that way and the inability to do so. I realized this morning that I’m blessed to be able to take care of Grandma Jean in the way I wished I could have taken care of Grandma Phelps and I have the skills to help in a real way because of my recent wonderful year and a half with Phyllis. The Universe does have a way of making things up to you, if and when it’s possible to do so.