I stood in the spacious hospital room next to my grandmother’s bed, shifting nervously from one foot to the other. I passed the time with anxious glances over my shoulder to make sure my 5-year-old was behaving. I wasn’t quite sure what to do or say.
My beloved grandmother, at 90 years old, looked too small and frail in that bed. She had broken her left hip a few days before and had surgery; at that time she’d still been recovering from breaking her right hip just two months prior.
Add Alzheimer’s to the mix, and my family was worried. Grandma’s mind is generally “ok”, but she does get more confused when she’s out of her assisted living apartment, away from her normal environment. And breaking both hips in two months? She’d recovered pretty well from the first one…but was a second good broken hip recovery for a 90-year-old Alzheimer’s patient too much to ask?
These are the thoughts that ran through my head as my grandmother fiddled obsessively with the sheet that was covering her. This is something that has come with her disease, this tinkering and fiddling with garments, blankets, bandages, etc. I couldn’t tell what she was trying to do.
“Grandma, can I help you with your sheet?” I yelled (because she won’t wear her hearing aids). “What are you trying to do?”
She stopped fiddling and motioned for me to lean close.
“Those girls were acting silly and they put this shirt on me,” she whispered covertly, motioning to her hospital gown, “And you can see RIGHT through it!” Paranoia, another of Alzheimer’s “gifts”.
Not wanting to feel exposed, she was trying to get the sheet folded just so and use it to cover up her hospital gown (which you totally could not see through at all).
“Let me help you,” I said. Carefully I peeled back her blanket and released the sheet from the bed. Then I folded it in half, and half again, until it was about twice the width of her body. Then I tenderly placed it over her chest and tucked it in around her.
She gave me a little smile.
My grandmother is to me what all grandmothers should be to their grandkids: an incredible source of unconditional love, a tireless childhood playmate, a cooker of delicious foods, and a shining example of hard work and the joy of serving others.
And though she is still with us, I miss what we will never have again because of age and Alzheimer’s. But I cherish beyond measure the fact that we had it, and that now, it is I who can love her even when she is not herself, who can help meet her physical needs, who can glean joy from serving her with a visit or some flowers or by making sure she feels covered up in the hospital.
It is a privilege.
Grandma looks around the room (it’s atypically huge for a hospital room) and asks me if I see the man in the corner with the white hair standing on his tiptoes. There is no man—it’s a hallucination from the Alzheimer’s. Grandma has them fairly often but they aren’t usually upsetting.
“No, I don’t see him, Grandma,” I say, “is he bothering you?”
“No, he’s not bothering me, I just don’t know what he’s doing.”
I decide to change the subject. This is how I deal with things Alzheimer’s things that I don’t know how to deal with. Brilliant, right? Well, this time it DID end up being brilliant…because when I changed the subject, my grandma taught me another profound life lesson. And I did NOT see it coming.
I decided our new subject of discussion would be her daughter, my mom, Diane, who hasn’t been to see her for a couple of days. My mom is devoted to her mom and it pains her not to be here, but she herself had had a much-needed back surgery just the day before. We’ve decided to tell Grandma that my mom’s back is simply hurting too much for her to ride in a car. You know, keep it simple.
“Mom wanted me to let you know she couldn’t come today because her back is hurting her,” I said, “but she’ll see you when you’re back home.”
“Her back’s hurting?” Grandma grimaced a bit with concern for her daughter. Then she looked away for a long moment, thinking. Slowly she turned her head back to me and gazed up at me with her liquidy brown eyes. They were clear, and slightly pleading, but they weren’t at all confused.
“Where’s my mom?” she said, cocking her head to one side.
I felt my chest tighten a bit. Did she mean my mom, her daughter, whom I’d just spoken of? “My mom’s at home, Grandma. Her back hurts too much to come today.”
“No, my mom.” she said. “Where’s my mom?”
My breath caught in my throat. A beat passed, then another. What do I say?
I stepped closer to the bed, leaned in a bit. Was I about to inform my grandmother that her mother was dead? How does one break that sort of news…again? Would it be as hard for her as it was when it had actually happened? She had died in the 1950s, when my Grandma was a young mom herself.
“Grandma,” I said gently but loudly because I wanted to make sure she HEARD me, “You’re 90 years old. So your mom isn’t with you any more.”
“She isn’t with me any more?” (I held my breath again. Would she get my meaning, or was I too asbstract? She paused. “I don’t remember her dying.”
“It was a long time ago. When your children were small.”
“Oh.” She turned her head away. Another pause, then back at me.
At that moment my uncle came in the room, and the awkwardness was diffused. Grandma’s attention snapped to him, and her mother’s loss was for the moment, forgotten.
But what she taught me in that moment, I will remember forever.
I just wish that I could have told her that the real answer to “Where’s my mom?” is “In your heart.”
Soon I had to take my leave, pick up my other children from the bus stop. Before I did, I leaned in and kissed Grandma’s papery, wrinkled cheek and said, “I love you.”
“I love you too, hon.” she said.
It is such a privilege to be able to say that to her, and hear it in return.
In my car, my son strapped in in the back, I was finally free to let the weight of our exchange break forth. The emotions of the visit, of my mom’s surgery the day before, of this INSANE week, both senior members of my matriarchal line prostrate in hospital beds, finally got the best of me. Tears ran down my cheeks and the words spun over and over again inside my mind: “Where’s my mom?”
She’d said it twice. She wanted me to understand. She wanted HER mom. She was broken, hurting, in need of care in a hospital room, injured, unwell, and she wanted her MOM. Her son was there, I was there, her other grandchildren and great-grandchildren have filled her room with their presence, flowers, balloons, and love.
But Alzheimer’s had allowed her to let her true, basic need come to the surface.
“Where’s my mom?”
She’s in your heart, Grandma. She’ll always be in your heart.
Mothers, this is what my 90-year-old grandmother taught me that day: your children love you fiercely. And they WANT you. Long after you are gone from this earth, they will still want you. Only you. God made you for them and them for you and there are few things that can tear apart that bond if you nurture it. And the truth is? Even if you don’t nurture it, it’s hard to break that yearning that comes with being born of a person. They will want you.
No matter what.
You’re in their hearts.
Thank you, Grandma, for showing me what I often lose in the day-to-day demands of child-rearing. My children don’t just need me, they love me and they want to be with me.
I will be there for them with every fiber of my being for as long as the Lord gives me breath.
No matter what.
With all my heart.