“Honey, I want to go home.”
I look away from my book to meet her eyes and answer, “we are home.”
“No. I want to go…” she motions with her arms in a direction, presumably towards Mount Vernon where she grew up.
“This is home now, and we are here together, and we’re going to be okay.”
“My mom,” she pauses and brings her hand up to her forehead as the lines around her face crinkle deeper, “I don’t know if she’s alive or dead.”
Oh, Alzheimer’s you are so cruel.
I bring her attention to the quilt covering my legs, “she made this, didn’t she?”
She smiles, “yes, she did. She was wonderful. Woon-der-fuul,” she says, drawing out the word.
Oriah Mountain Dreamer once wrote, “I want to know if you can sit with pain, mine or your own, without moving to hide it, or fade it, or fix it.”
Sitting with pain—mine, and my family’s, and my grandmother’s—seems to be all we do these days. Sure, there are the card games here and the monopoly games there, but we sit with pain at breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
In between meals, I follow her around and make sure she doesn’t do any physical damage. I entertain her long into the night as Mama Eula gets undressed only to put on her finest Sunday best, again and again and again.
“I know what I’m doing, honey,” she says as she pours shampoo into her hands, before rubbing it on her face and arms. I take a cloth and soak it with warm water and wash off the sticky cream that would surely leave her face blistering red.
“Well, what are you doing! It’s HOT! Why do you want to take it down, honey, I just turned it up, and it’s HOT!” Her voice raises with every word as I try to close the windows to the 96 degree heat outside. “It’s just not right. It’s not good. Your people want to know over there how to done those things… like right here,” as she props open the door. She trails off, no longer making any sense. I count to ten, distract her with a photograph, and close the windows and door.
“I’ve never been so… scared… in my entire life… something’s wrong,” she says as she looks at me anxiously, hoping I have an answer. “What’s wrong?” I ask. “I don’t know. Something. I don’t know what, and I don’t know how to fix it. She lies down on the couch and closes her eyes. I lean over to give her a hug. I whisper “I love you” before I pull away. She holds her head in her hands and answers, “I love you too, honey.”
Yes, there is pain. Oh, there is pain. I’m not sure I could ever write it to make a reader feel it the way I do. But maybe I don’t need to. Maybe there are enough people who know exactly what I mean from their own experiences, without me having to describe it.
There IS joy and lovingkindness too. Really, there is. There is laughter when she jokes that she’s gonna whoop us and when she eats 8 pieces of cake in a row because she doesn’t remember that she’s already had one. The sound of her voice as she reads from a book reminds me of when she used to read to me as a child (although I’m pretty sure she can’t make sense of the words). I loved listening to her read then, and I love listening to her read now.
Because words fail us so often now, we share many hugs and kisses. We listen to music (especially Johnny Cash), and look at pictures. The pictures that used to be neat and in order now lie scattered around the house.
I’d be lying if I wrote that Pain leaves during the good moments because during this long goodbye with my grandmother, I do a lot of mourning. Maybe if I mourn now, I’ll mourn less later? I don’t know. That’s probably not how it works. I just can’t help it.
When I get frustrated, my first move is to hug her. I think wrapping my arms around her calms both of us down. Did I mention that we hug a LOT?
Sometimes when we’re hugging, I wonder what I’ll miss most. Her dark blue eyes and pink complexion that mirrors my own? Her special buttermilk biscuits? The way her whole being becomes excited in the presence of a child? The way she squeezes my hand or says my name? Or, will I most miss watching her and my grandfather love each other?
After a lifetime of sleeping with her sisters, and then my grandfather, Mama Eula can’t sleep alone. She will only fall asleep if you promise to eventually join her, or if you set up a bed on the porch outside her bedroom (as my sister and I did for most of the week—with no air conditioning because she wants all the windows and doors open, 96 degrees was too hot to fit three in a bed!). The other night was a particularly difficult night, and I ended up crawling into her bed to lie down with her, as my mom used to do with me when I was a child. Not planning to sleep yet, I lied awake and watched her, trying to see when the rise of the blankets evened out. We held hands, and I studied the lines of her thin fingers lacing through my own. Eventually I closed my eyes, and when I opened them, we had reversed roles, and she was staring at me. We smiled. There is joy.
Last week, I wrote about being anxious because “these are scary times.” I would like to say that has gone away, at least for now. Acting as primary caretaker of my grandmother knocked it out of me. Not saying it won’t come back. But as Audre Lorde once said, “When I dare to be powerful — to use my strength in the service of my vision — then it becomes less and less important whether I am afraid.”
And that’s what I’ve been doing this week: sitting with pain and being powerful.
I don’t feel particularly courageous right now, just present.1