It’s been a while since I’ve written anything creative outside of the home design or real estate category, but I’d like to share a piece I wrote for a creative writing class back in college that was submitted and accepted into the school’s annual collection of student arts publications. I recently adapted the content to bring it up to date with my current age and life status.
I hope by posting this I’m inspired to spend more free time – what little I have these days – dedicated toward journaling. Even just a few thoughts might mold a bigger project, something that could be rounded into one continuous autobiography or a collection of short stories in the future.
My grandmother used to eat raw meat. At first, she called me by my mother’s name. Except it wasn’t just a mishap or stutter, but more of a frantic cry she would bellow out from the bottom of the staircase when she would babysit some weekends. I thought it was old age. I guess my parents did too.
Toward the end, she lived in a nursing home. The Alzheimer’s wing at Manor Care on Route 41 was locked by a keypad and alarm security system. Visitors and employees needed the code to enter and exit. If the heavy, metal door was left open for more than a few seconds, which was just enough time to scoot through, the startling bell would sound, upsetting patients and visitors equally. I never saw any of the patients try to leave, and I don’t know why. Even if one of the seniors were to try and retrieve the code, it was only a matter of minutes before it was forgotten again, lost in the back of memories from years past.
“Mom, remember Jenny? She came here to see you,” my dad said slowly in a high-pitched voice, almost like talking to a child.
“Oh Jenny! Of course I remember her, Hank!” Granny protested, scolding my dad for his condescending tone.
“Hi Granny,” I smiled.
“Hi Maria,” she replied.
For the first few years after we moved to Lake Forest, shortly after my grandfather passed, Granny lived in a studio apartment in our basement. I loved running down the stairs after school to watch soap operas and eat cream cheese and crackers. I was borderline obsessed with being a schoolteacher when I was younger. Granny fully supported my premature career goals and pretended to be my student named Linny. I semi-forced her fill out worksheets as I set up math problems in our make-shift “classroom,” which was fit with an overhead projector and a child-sized chalkboard. I rewarded her with useless trinkets like paper clips and hair ties when she answered my elementary problems correctly. She aced the same simple math problems I was struggling with in the fourth grade. She could even fit all the puzzle pieces on the United States map in their correct places. I guess back then I sort of treated her like a child. If she ever found herself confused in her own thoughts, I became frustrated with her. Maybe she acted bothered and scattered in retaliation. If I had more patience, she wouldn’t have become so uneasy at minor difficulties or setbacks.
I am twenty-five now. I know full well that my grandmother had Alzheimer’s, and she began exhibiting the symptoms well before we understood what was happening to her, which is common in dementia and related diseases. She was more than my grandmother at the end – she was a woman whose life became consumed by confusion. What I once perceived as isolated incidents of clumsiness and lapse were in fact symptoms of a well-known, plaguing mental ailment.
Alzheimer’s is the sixth leading cause of death amongst Americans, according to the CDC. Countless families have experienced losing a loved one – not only physically, but mentally, which can sometimes feel worse when left with no explanation for unsound behavior. They watch as their elders slip away and act irrational at mundane tasks. As the disorientation of a family member takes over, you only hope the afflicted remembers the past and what they mean to you.
I’m not sure why, but Granny moved out a few years after we moved to Lake Forest, before the illness was acknowledged or formally diagnosed by a medical doctor. My dad bought her a condo in Lake Bluff and that was that. Sure, I visited frequently – her condominium grounds had a swimming pool. I still missed her being so close, waiting to hear the clunk of the basement door shutting, followed by my tiny feet barreling down the staircase. Although I was past the age of pretending I was a teacher and her my student, the empty basement studio resembled the respect and admiration I once held for her. The same regard that had vacated our hearts once she began acting irrational. Whether or not her move was on her own terms, perhaps she was happy to suffer alone where she couldn’t be a daily reminder of the progressive amnesia that plagued her reminiscence.
One weekend my parents went to Cancun for a business trip. I was only twelve or so, but my brother was sixteen. In high school, if your parents went out of town, you had a house party. Granny spent the weekend in the guest bedroom. We had already begun transforming her old apartment into a storage space. I look back and wonder how petrified Granny must have been when my brother threw one of the wildest events of the year, complete with every model Jeep lining our private street. I can almost visualize it – inebriated teens running around upstairs, glass beer bottles smashing in pieces on our wooden floors and Granny in her nightgown saying her bedside prayers with absolutely no clue on how to react to the occurrences. I can’t remember if my parents found out about the party right away, but that weekend was one of the last times she ever babysat. After all, she really wasn’t qualified to monitor us and our unbridled teenage behavior.
After a few years in her condo, my mom, Maria, purchased Granny a microwave for her meals. She couldn’t be trusted with the oven any more. My mom even covered up the other buttons with cardboard so that only one, “Dinner Plate,” was visible. The elemental layout allowed Granny to throw in a frozen meal and be confident she wasn’t making any missteps. I believe it gave her confidence, thinking she could take care of herself. She still showered regularly and always moisturized her face with Ponds Cream. I remember the fresh scent distinctly.
The number seven warning sign of Alzheimer’s is misplacing things and losing the ability to retrace steps. As far back as I can remember, Granny would always pray to St. Anthony anytime a possession went missing. I had always assumed she was just clumsy with her belongings.
Things seemed to be going OK a year or so after she moved out. She was still coherent and composed. But when she lost her license and needed a ride to the grocery store while my dad was at work, she flagged down a pick up truck on Waukegan Road, got in the back, and asked the driver to take her to Dominick’s, a wad of cash gripped tightly in her fragile hand. The driver called the police, and they recommended we put her under professional care for her own health and safety.
My dad didn’t want to put his mother in a home. It didn’t seem necessary to him. She was just old and confused; perfectly normal at her age.
The number three warning sign of Alzheimer’s is difficulty completing tasks at home. If an elderly person begins forgetting to bathe or how to properly cook food, something is undoubtedly wrong.
One day, my mother and I went to Granny’s apartment to drop off some toiletries and laundry detergent. We found half eaten raw steaks in the fridge, the blood dripping down the shelves, staining the clear plastic and contaminating other uncovered containers of old food. When we asked her about it, she had no explanation. I don’t think she even realized her serious aberration. But then again, how could she? We moved her out weeks later.
I remember one of the last times I went to visit her in the nursing home before she was admitted to the Intensive Care Unit and passed on New Year’s Eve in 2008. She sat at the end of the hallway with a few other women on her floor. It was fairly cool to sit in these seats, and Granny was always in the middle with the other women competing for her attention. I smiled as I walked down the long hallway, seeing her socialize with her acquaintances I had become so familiar with over the years.
As I approached, her face lit up, per usual. Then, her expression slowly turned into a frown, from what I imagine reflected her internal struggle to recall why she loved me so much.