Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Memories of saying goodbye

It was pretty nice as far as nursing homes go. Maybe the nicest I'd ever seen. But I hated it.

Walking down the hall to Room 117, I gripped my children's hands and dragged them along behind me. They weren't any happier than me to be there but they knew enough to be quiet. They knew enough to be scared.

The door was closed so I knocked lightly.

"Come in," I heard. I sighed a heavy sigh. Here goes nothing.

"Hi grandma," I said to the petite, frail woman with white hair sitting on the bed. Please let her remember me.

"Oh!" she exclaimed. "Katie!" Phew.

Even with all her things in there, her room looked foreign and unfamiliar. I had sworn I'd never let one of my own family members end up in a place like this. My husband and I had even had plans drawn up to remodel our house, complete with a handicap bathroom, so my grandma could come live with us. But when Alzheimer's begins its cruel work in earnest, everything changes.

Grandma sang the "Teddy Bear's Picnic" song to the kids and we visited. Then we left Room 117 and walked around the inside of the building, my grandma's slow shuffle appearing painful because of her hunched back. My kids stared at old women shouting at houseplants and old men sobbing in wheelchairs. I couldn't believe it had come to this.

At first my grandma spoke with a measure of normalcy about her disdain for "this place," her distaste for the food, and her disbelief that grandpa would leave her here. As if he had a choice. Then, before my eyes, she transported herself to a different time, years ago, and found herself on a boat. She could no longer see what I saw or know what I knew. Curse you, Alzheimer's. Curse you to the depths.

I was emotionally exhausted by the time my grandma found her way back to the present, and my kids can only take so much, so I told my grandma it was time.

"We've gotta get going, grandma," I said.

I knew she would be disappointed but nothing could prepare me for the look of desolation that passed over her face. Her eyes seemed to ask a hundred questions at once: How could you leave me here? Where am I? What's going to happen to me? Who are you? But she didn't say any of those things.

"You'll come back and visit again, won't you?" she asked instead.

I answered, but as soon as the word "yes" left my mouth, I knew in my heart it wasn't true. I knew that even if I had the chance to drive the six hours to visit her again, she wouldn't be here. She would be lost forever in the murky, gray fifth dimension of Alzheimer's disease and I would never talk to her again. This was really goodbye. I knew it as clearly as I knew the sun was shining outside.

I leaned down to give her a gentle hug, hating myself for being so anxious to get out of a place she'd never get to leave. My eyes were misty but I forced a smile. My words stuck in my throat but I forced them out. "Goodbye, grandma. I love you."

"Goodbye dear," she said. Then she sat down in a chair and peered down the hallway at another world, folding her hands neatly in her lap. "I'll just wait here for the train."

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