November 19, 2009
Grandmother’s house. 9:30pm at the dining room table. Feeling the natural pull towards sugar and caffeine that takes hold when you step foot into my grandmother’s kitchen. I dreaded the smell for weeks as soon as I knew I would come. The smell of my grandmother’s house is something that emanates from her as well as her house and anything she sends you in the mail, including paper goods. It’s like sweet grass, burnt coffee and perfumey molasses. It’s amazing. One inhale sends anyone in her realm tumbling through time and space, through all of the ages she has taken care of us—including when I was 24 and 28 and stayed with her. Sure she started to repeat herself a little on the last visit, but there was no confusion in the caregiver/receiver paradigm. She would always hand me a cup of coffee in the morning and we would sit down and watch the Price is Right.
November 20th, 2009 10:45am
My Grandmother isn’t here this morning, which is probably why I slept so late. Nestled into her bed, I have completely lost track of time in the sense of hours and years. Normally my grandmother would be up and moving around at 5 or 6. she would unpin the tissue that kept her hair in tact as she slept. A slight tease with a little metal comb and she’s off keeping herself busy with making breakfast, doing laundry, ironing clothes. I’ve never been here when she is not here and I keep thinking that she will be home soon, shuffling around the house tidying things or sitting at the dining room table watching the little TV in the corner of the room.
This morning I blink my heavy lids open and look around the room. I’m surprisingly clear on where I am for having started the day in a dance studio in Seattle and ended it in Membphis. I know that Helen is in a rehab center about 20 minutes away, sleeping one foot off the ground (she is a “fall risk”). I woke up in the middle of the night smelling the clear strong smell of urine I had smelled when I was sitting on the edge of her hospital bed earlier. With all her broken bones, she cannot get up and go to the toilet. My grandmother, the strongest woman on earth, is wearing diapers. This smell sticks with me in my middle of the night delirium.
This morning, I’ve stated to take everything in with different eyes, as if her being her had held one lens in place my whole life and now as a grown up, seeing her in her childlike state, I can observe my grandmother’s complexities. Her house is sort of like a bunker. I lay in her bed, noticing how strange it is that her windows all begin about 5 feet above the floor and I can’t even remember there being a window at all in her living room. When I walk out into the room I realize that there are very moderate sized windows in most rooms but they are either covered with heavy drape from the late sixties or with venetian blinds pulled tightly shut. When I open them, it dramatically changes the experience of being in her house. I think she was more afraid of living by herself in the middle of Memphis than I realized. I pour a cup of coffee from her standard mr. coffee pot and still, still, I swear it tastes different. My grandmother would always put a pinch of salt on top of her Folger’s grounds and it would somehow make me forget that it was folgers.
Her living room is like an angel’s den. Everything is white and gold and somehow I hadn’t realized before how graceland it is. I’m usually distracted by the layers upon layers of framed photographs that create the fortress around and on all the furniture in the room. Last night I noticed that there is a picture of her and Charlie, her second (ex) husband framed in a silver frame with a heart underneath their smiling faces. I didn’t realize she felt fondly enough about Charlie to keep this photo around. Had I never noticed it before? Did my aunt put it here? It made me think of my mom, how Charlie was not the best stepfather to her and how this picture has been a constant in her life. Did my mom ever feel betrayed by Helen for staying with him? Families hold so much darkness and complexity. it is sort of chilling to me.
There are also some strange patriotic things around the house. I think these started cropping up much later in my grandmother’s life because I remember pretty clearly that she was a liberal, skeptical of all men in charge of anything for most of my life. But now there are some American flag mugs and a pillow with a print of teddy bears wearing flag inspired accessories. These items must be gifts, somehow different from the rest of the gifts around the house.
Now, I will go take a shower and get ready for a trip down Quince to the rehab center.
Grandmother looked good today. She was wearing a 2-piece matching black velour lounge suit with her stark white hair combed back. We found her sitting in her wheelchair next to her bed, her hand thrown over her face with dramatic flair. I rushed in to greet her and hoped to facilitate a change in expression quickly before my Mom came in the room. “Hi Grandmother, it’s me Shannon.” “oh hi hon.” She says easily, dimentia clouds seemingly parted for the time being.
We take my Grandmother for a walk in the courtyard, a sort of desolate opening in the center of the rehab center. Two patches of grass line one walkway with rows of newly planted pansies on either side. “What’s your favorite color?” My mom asks grandmother referring to the multiple colors of pansies. I can’t quite hear what she says in response. She has taken to talking very quietly. When we reach the end of the walkway and turn her around, my mom, as if empathizing with my grandmother’s state of mind says again, “What’s your favorite color?”
We sit and chat for a while in the slim rays of sun that sneak through the clouds, falling in a familiar groove of talking about my grandmother’s cooking. About making jelly she says “don’t take nothing.” And about biscuits, “I still make me some.” After a pause she has a look of surprising clarity in her downcast eyes and says, “I haven’t cooked for a long time, have I?” and our hearts simultaneously break. “Sure you have” and “It’s only been a few weeks” and my mom, “remember last time I was here you helped me with breakfast?” and I flash a memory of my mom’s story about how grandmother had tried to stick the bacon in the toaster oven instead of the microwave. This really upset my mom. My poor mom. My dad, in own opiate-induced haze, is stooped something awful. This greatly bothers my grandmother for the duration of the visit and she repeatedly tells him to sit down or he is going to fall over. My heart sings a little victory song every time she says “Bob” and tells him what to do. This is pure Helen. And, she remembers his name quite clearly.
After a while we leave the rehab center with my grandmother lying down in her bed for a nap and go home to eat launch. We’ve been driving her charcoal gray1986 Honda Accord around, liberating it from her carport, where it sat like a piece of furniture gathering thick sticky dust. We go home and make lunch, I watch my mom and aunt have what seems like an unnecessarily awkward conversation about applying for Medicaid before we round ourselves up and go over to the center again to spend time with her.
The next day our schedule was much the same. I can’t seem to keep myself from sleeping in a ridiculously long time and so my mom leaves to visit grandmother on her own. My dad and I eat a long drawn out breakfast where he takes all his medications with admirable methodology. This time when we go for our afternoon group visit, my grandmother is in the hallway in her wheelchair. It’s not clear how she got there or what she is doing there (with her broken bones, she is not pulling herself around at all) but I sort of imagine that at some point the nurses pull everyone out of their rooms so that they can wander aimlessly through the halls and break up their days of sitting and staring aimlessly. Only my grandmother is not wandering, just sitting trapped in the corner with some other non-movers. I push her through the traffic jam and back out into the courtyard, where we repeat much of yesterday’s conversation and take pictures amongst the pansies. My mom laughs easily right now. I think she is trying really hard to keep it light for her mom. My Aunt is serious and stern, sometimes joking but mostly barely concealing the irritation and exhaustion she is enduring. And me, I don’t know, I could stare into my grandmother’s blue eyes for eternity and try to send her this message, “I know you are scared and its going to be okay. Its going to be okay.” My emotions, at least right now, are not my own.