Tuesday, October 9, 2007

"Do Not Go Gentle . . ."

Andrew’s maternal grandmother, his only living grandparent, lives in a care facility.

I never met Andrew’s grandmother until a couple of months ago. On a Sunday afternoon in August, after a gathering of Andrew’s mother’s family to celebrate the birthday of one of Andrew’s mother’s siblings, Andrew’s parents and I stopped at the care facility to visit his grandmother.

It would not be accurate to say that I was introduced to Andrew’s grandmother that day, because there was no introduction. Alongside Andrew and his parents, I simply sat in a room with her for an hour.

Andrew’s grandmother is 95 years old, and she suffers from senility. She no longer recognizes anyone and she lives in her own isolated world.

Andrew’s grandmother lived in her own home until age 90. That year she fell on the steps of her church and broke her hip. She was never to return to her home again.

After her hospitalization for hip surgery, she went to live with Andrew’s parents, but by the time she left the hospital she was already a different person. She more or less lost all capability of functioning, mentally and physically, within a few weeks of her fall, and she was never to regain her lost faculties.

She spent several months living with Andrew’s parents, and it was a very unhappy situation. She had to be cared for around the clock, because she could do nothing for herself. She had to be watched at all times, even at night, because she was prone to rise in the middle of the night and try to use the stairs.

Andrew’s mother was a virtual prisoner for those months, unable to leave the house even to do food shopping. Andrew’s parents got virtually no rest during that time because they were full-time caregivers, even throughout the night. Finally, they had no choice but to place her in a care facility. They were quite literally killing themselves trying to care for her.

Until three years ago, Andrew’s grandmother would occasionally recognize Andrew’s mother, her youngest child, as well as her oldest son, but for the last three years she has recognized no one. She does not talk and she does not listen to or comprehend anyone or anything. Speech has no meaning for her.

The only pleasure she seems to have is sitting in a conservatory at the care facility. It is a beautiful sunroom with a glass roof, filled with plants and flowers and small trees and comfortable chairs, and she smiles when she is escorted into that room. She likes to sit in the room, and enjoy the plants and flowers and trees and natural light. I don’t think she takes pleasure in anything else.

Her life is spent sitting in a chair, or walking between chairs: chairs in her bedroom and chairs in the dining room and chairs in the great room and chairs in the conservatory. Even at night, she sits in a chair in her bedroom. She does not sleep in her bed. Instead, she will occasionally nod off in a chair. That is her only slumber.

Andrew’s mother goes to see her most days, spending an hour with her either in the morning or in the afternoon. Once a week, Andrew’s mother will have lunch at the facility, eating next to her own mother in the dining room.

Andrew’s father generally accompanies Andrew’s mother on weekend visits to the facility.

Andrew goes to see his grandmother every other week. He always goes to see his grandmother at lunchtime during the workweek, and he goes on a day on which his mother has lunch at the facility. He has lunch there on those days, too, and his grandmother sits between him and his mother and they all have lunch together in the dining room.

It is very sad, and it is also very painful. There is no longer a person inside Andrew’s grandmother, or at least no way to reach whatever person remains inside her.

The reason I never met Andrew’s grandmother until August was because Andrew always told me that there was no point in my going to the care facility to meet her because there was no one there to meet other than the body of a former person who was now an empty shell. In fact, the only reason I met Andrew’s grandmother in August was because Andrew’s parents decided to stop and visit her that Sunday afternoon after the family gathering, and we had all gone to the family gathering in one car.

That Sunday afternoon we all sat with her for an hour. There was nothing more to our visit than sitting alongside her. She did not converse. She did not look at us. Our conversation had no meaning for her. Andrew’s mother would touch her and kiss her, and she did not respond to the touches and kisses. It was very, very sad.

I can see, from photographs, that Andrew’s grandmother had been a very, very beautiful woman in her day, surely one of the most beautiful women in Minneapolis. In her wedding photographs, she is dazzling. In those photographs, I can see her beautiful face, a face so beautiful it is almost startling. More importantly, her eyes in those photographs reveal a keen intelligence and a bright, vivacious personality and a youthful, vigorous energy. Seeing those photographs, I can instantly understand why Andrew’s grandfather wanted to marry her. Any well-bred young man would have wanted her as his wife.

During my visit to the care facility, I could tell that one question, and one question only, was going through Andrew’s family’s minds the entire visit: how much longer will this be permitted to continue? A shadow existence, such as that now suffered by Andrew’s grandmother--a person whom they all used to know and love and cherish--surely must be one of the most painful things in life for anyone to have to watch and endure.

For her sake, and for the sake of her family, I hope Andrew’s grandmother is called home before long.

My own grandparents are already gone.

My paternal grandfather died before I was born.

My maternal grandfather died when I was five years old. I barely remember him, because he lived in Indiana and I saw him very rarely. I don’t even remember attending his funeral, but I am assured by my parents that I was there.

My maternal grandmother died when I was fifteen. I do remember her, and I remember her well, but I seldom saw her because she lived in Indiana and my family did not have time to make many trips to Indiana. I generally saw her once a year, either at Christmas or during the summer, when she would come to Oklahoma for a visit.

The grandparent I genuinely knew, and loved very deeply, was my paternal grandmother, who more or less raised me. She lived out in the country, on a farm, and I spent about half of the first ten years of my life living with her. Whatever I am today, I owe to her.

She gave me love and care and attention and affection, without limit, and she was the first person who loved me unconditionally and wanted nothing in return. In fact, until I met Andrew, she was the only person in my life who loved me unconditionally and wanted nothing in return.

I always loved summer days on the farm. We would garden in the mornings, and sit outside in the shade in the afternoons, and play cards at night. On Friday mornings, we would go to town and do the shopping for the week.

My grandmother did not have much money, and her garden was very important to her. Her summer garden was responsible for providing her with fruits and vegetables for the whole year. From her garden and orchard she would can peaches and pears and cherries and green beans and corn and tomatoes and carrots. She would make strawberry and raspberry and apricot preserves. She would keep mounds of potatoes and apples in the basement, enough to last through the winter.

My grandmother also kept chickens. The chickens provided her with eggs, and egg money, because she would sell fresh eggs to neighbors.

My grandmother had a hard life, and yet she was very happy—at least, she appeared to be happy the entire time I was with her. She always laughed a lot, and seemed pleased and privileged to be able to spend time with me. I loved her so much that writing about her now brings tears to my eyes.

She died when I was a senior in high school. Her car was hit by a truck one Friday morning on her way into town. The driver of the truck said that she had pulled out onto the highway from a country road directly into his path.

My mother showed up at school that day, in the middle of classes, to retrieve me. I was called out of class to the principal’s office, where I found my mother.

I knew something was up, but I never expected to receive the news that my grandmother had died. I started crying right there in the principal’s office.

That day was the saddest day of my life.

After my grandmother died, I never thought I would be that close to anyone ever again. I could not even conceive being that close to another person, or loving someone so totally and so unconditionally, and I thought that part of my life was behind me forever.

Happily for me, it was not, but I was not to know that for another four years.

I never told Andrew about my grandmother until Andrew and I had been together a couple of months. Then one afternoon it all came out of me, like a flood.

We were taking a bath together, and suddenly I found it necessary to tell Andrew everything I could think of about my grandmother. I talked, nonstop, for almost an hour and a half. Andrew looked at me and listened the whole time, but he did not say a word. He just listened while I talked. I did a lot of crying while I talked, and my talking ended only because the bathwater had become cold and because we needed to get up and dry ourselves and warm ourselves.

Sometimes I have the odd notion that Andrew and I, when we get old, should retire to the small house my grandmother owned in rural Oklahoma. It was a very simple and very small house: a kitchen, a living room, two small bedrooms, a tiny bath. There was a full attic, which she used for storage, and a full basement, filled with jars of canned fruits and vegetables and bins of potatoes and apples. There was a small front porch.

It was not luxurious, but it was home.

The house was sold after my grandmother’s death, and I don’t even know who lives there now. Nevertheless, somehow I wish that Andrew and I could one day live in that house. It seems appropriate that we should live there, because Andrew, like my grandmother, loves me unconditionally and wants nothing in return.

And I could see all of that, and more, in Andrew’s eyes that afternoon in the bathtub, as he silently listened to me talk, and cry, as I told him about my grandmother while we sat in the freezing bathwater.

No doubt Andrew and I will never actually have the opportunity to retire to my grandmother’s house. For one thing, the house will probably not even be standing by the time we are ready to retire. For another, I don’t think that Andrew and I have a clue what retirement and old age has in store for us.

But I believe we would be happy there, and for all the right reasons.

When the day comes that there is no longer a person inside each of us, I hope we are called home. I don’t want us to “rage, rage against the dying of the light”.


  1. Joshua, from the bottom of my heart, I love this heart-rending post!

    Only a few people, my dear, could write as eloquently and lovingly and vividly as you!


  2. Thank you, Chanteuse, for your beautiful words.

    That is very kind of you.