Alzheimer’s May Take My Grandmother’s Mind, But It Will Never Take Her Spirit.

One of my favorite memories growing up was when I was five and had the Chicken Pox.  You’d think it would be a time I wouldn’t look back on fondly.  I mean, who actually reminisces about itchy blisters?

It wasn’t the pox that I liked, but it was sitting in our sun room for five itchy days wearing oven mitts with my grandmother, Nini, as she taught me all about birds.  I can remember sitting in the quiet silence of the afternoon light as it made geometric shapes across the tan carpet of the sun room. Nini kept her post next to me, reminding me every few minutes to refrain from scratching at my skin that seemed to be alive with tickling annoyance.  In an effort to distract my attention, Nini sought to teach me all of the names of the birds that made their home in the trees and bird houses in our yard.  I learned of the tiny goldfinch, the regal barn swallow, the beautiful cardinal, the hard working woodpecker,  and the pesky crows.  She taught me the difference between a hawk and falcon; falcons are smaller and faster by the way.  I heard stories of vultures, and how if I ever saw them circling overhead it probably meant that something had died nearby.

Nini taught me a lot over those five days.  Not only did I become a five-year-old expert of birds, but she taught me about the quiet love of a grandmother.  She has never been one to say the words I love you, her strict upbringing always kept her at an emotional arms length.  However, she always found ways to communicate her love and devotion in other ways.  It was in the way she would sneak up on me unexpectedly and blow raspberries into my neck, then pull away as she giggled out an I gottcha.  It was in the way she would give me a mischievous wink from across a crowded room.  It was how she would let me lay across her lap, even until I was nearly twenty-six years old, and hypnotize and tickle my back with her fingers.  It was in the way she would give me a hug, leaning in to my ear and whispering you’re my special one, then pulling away just as she pinched me in the butt.  It was in her warm smile and bright blue eyes.  She never had to say I love you, because she made it abundantly clear she did by just being herself.

I think of myself as immensely lucky that I never went a full week without seeing her until I went to college.  Whether it was Noonsies at her house on a Sunday afternoon, digging in the dirt of her immaculate garden, going for walks with her dogs, or fishing on the end of a dock, I loved spending time with her.  She taught me more than just the common names of birds.  She taught me the importance of carrying oneself with class and dignity.  She taught me that while some may view stubbornness as a negative trait, it was really a mask for perseverance.  She taught me to always show others respect, and they will in turn respect me.  She taught me to always have interests and dreams, and that no matter what, that I always had a family that stood behind me one hundred percent.  She is, and has always been, the most important and special woman to me aside from my mother.

Ten years ago, I watched in horror as Nini’s memories started to slip.  Details started to become fuzzy, and she couldn’t remember simple things like how to get from her house to the grocery store.  At first, she hid it well.  Being the corporate wife she had been, she always knew how to dazzle a crowd with her charismatic personality.  She would laugh off her lapses in memory, insisting she didn’t have a problem and probably just needed more sleep.  A couple of years past and she couldn’t hide it anymore.  Holding on to her short term memory was like capturing smoke in her hands; everything was floating away in a mist of anguish.

I received a call from my mother earlier this week.  The Alzheimer’s was sinking its final claim into Nini’s once vibrant light, a light that is now no more than a  dull glow.  At nearly seventy pounds, she isn’t eating and is hardly drinking.  The amazing energy she once had chasing me around our backyard was gone, and now she has trouble standing for more than a few seconds at a time before collapsing. 

A lot of people don’t want to see their loved ones in this condition, saying they don’t want to remember them at the end of a ravaging disease.  I say that’s a cowardly and selfish stance.  Whether she is running a marathon or dying in bed, she is still my grandmother.  Dying should never be lonely.

I made the two hour trip to see her yesterday.  Knowing that it may be my last time in her presence, I attempted to mentally prepare myself for the event.  I made the drive in silence, letting my memories wash over me in quiet acceptance.

When I walked in her house I was met by her companion, Pat.  Even though it was nearly 10:00, she is still asleep in bed.  I made my way down the narrow hallway to her bedroom, and there, swallowed in her down comforter, lay my tiny grandmother in the fetal position.  I looked at her and attempted to blink away the tears and swallow the stinging in my throat.  She would never have cried, and I would honor her as such by abstaining as well. I scrutinized her form and I saw through the pointy bones and thin skin, and I saw my Nini.  I saw the same woman that taught me about life and I was overcome with love, love that flows deep in my core, love that knows no boundaries or diseases, love that is accepting of life’s hardships.

I bent down and whispered in her ear that I was there.  She groaned in recognition of a voice.  Her blue eyes fluttered open and she looked at me with the glaze that years of Alzheimer’s creates.  I stared at her for a few seconds, praying that she would give me a sign that she knew who I was, knew of the days we had spent talking of birds and years spent blowing raspberries. 

But there was no sign.   

There was no recognition.

She stared through me like a stranger, and weakly closed her eyes.

I honestly expected as much; I had prepared myself for this.  But still, it would be a lie if I said it wasn’t a disappointment.  I blinked away the tears again and accepted what I already knew to be true: Alzheimer’s had taken my grandmother’s mind, but it would never take her spirit. 

I spent the day with her the only way I knew how, in quiet admiration and love for a woman that had once taken care of me.  I helped her out of bed, like the countless times she lifted me out of my crib.  I removed her clothes and gave her a sponge bath, like the times she had bathed me.  I changed her bandages, just like the times she had covered my own wounds.  I rubbed her back and whispered to her that she was the special one.   I told her stories of birds, of life, and of all the memories in between. 

There were little glimpses of her spirit that fought through the fog.  It was in the way she puffed out her cheeks when I asked her if she was hungry, the way she still attempted to hide tissues up her sleeves, and in the way she smiled when I mentioned her dogs.

I sat there for a good part of the day and watched as she faded in and out of sleep.  I held her hand tight, tring to transfer the warmth I felt in my heart to hers.  Her eyes fluttered open as I gripped her hand.  That feels so nice, she said with a smile.

I looked back, knowing that my smile wasn’t familiar to her as hers was to me.  I love you, Nini, I said. 

Thank you, she replied.

No, thank you, I said.  Thank you for teaching me class and dignity.  Thank you for always being a symbol of strength.  Thank you for being my Nini.

She smiled, just before her eyes fell closed once more. I kissed her on the forehead as she quietly breathed in tempo with the rise and fall of her chest. 

I left Nini’s wondering how it was possible that she has made it so long.  I think the answer can be found in her stubborn spirit; the same spirit that stood up to anyone with an opposing opinion, the same spirit that wasn’t afraid to put someone in their place, the same spirit that is left untouched by the horror of Alzheimer’s. 

I’m not sure how much longer her spirit can fight this battle. As much as I love her, I want her to find peace again.  I want her spirit to be joined with the memories of her rich life.  I want her soul to break free from the bounds of this horrible disease.  I want her to find freedom on the wings of a bird, maybe a goldfinch or cardinal, and to fly home through the clouds of crystal clear memories. 

I love you, Nini.  You will always be my special one.

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