Wednesday, January 31, 2007

My grandmother

My grandmother has Alzheimer's, or so we think. She has struggled much of her life with one kind of illness after another: addiction, Parkinson's, dementia, and now Alzheimer's. The diagnosis is almost anticlimactic, really. We've known for years that there were short-term memory issues, and I guess I thought it could be written off to Parkinson's. Then they decided to cut back on her medications, and she suddenly did better off them than on them.
The last few years she has begun to forget important things: to get dressed after a shower before answering the door, that her son was in town to visit, to bathe and groom and all the "activities of daily living" we take for granted. When she realizes that she's forgotten something, she gets so frustrated...she knows that she can't remember, she just doesn't know what she doesn't remember.
I can deal with all that, most of the time. She's nearly 90, and she's been getting gradually worse for a decade or more. But now she's fallen, and broken a rib...nothing major, really, but it scares me for her. I don't see her often because it's hard...she's in Memphis, and I'm here, and it's expensive, and I have lots of excuses...but the truth is, in the deepest darkest corners of my brain, that I don't really want to see her like this. I want to remember Gaga who took us to Wal-Mart (before they were a national chain, no less), with a roll of nickels as spending money. I want to remember Dairy Queen trips and sitting in Shoney's and making a little stuffed crocheted turtle together more than 20 years ago. I do not want to go see her and find that she can't remember that I'm there unless I'm right in front of her.
For years, more than the 2o+ since we made that little turtle, she used to start missing us right after we got to her hometown each summer. She did not do this gracefully: she would shut herself in the bathroom and cry for a while, but eventually she'd get herself under control, and we'd find something to do. She used to be a little fragile, but game. She had to have her index finger amputated years ago, and she thought she's never be able to play the piano again, or to knit or crochet...but she taught herself how to reach all the keys and to hold the hook a little differently and not stop doing the things she loved, just because it was a little harder.
I think I started missing her, and wanting to lock myself in the bathroom and cry a little while, when she forgot that she'd taught herself to do that. When she told me how much she missed those things, and that she hadn't been able to do it since she lost that finger, I lost a piece of her that was important to me. I'm not sure I understood how important until now, when a bathroom fall and a broken rib seem to be portents of some horribly changed reality: there will one day be a world without my Gaga. It seems somehow imminent: her 90th birthday will be in October...we hope. I've been missing her for years...but I know she's there. I'm not ready to deal with missing her when she's not.

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