Sunday, May 22, 2005

A slow goodbye

I've been sorting through old computer disks from college, and came across this essay I wrote for a magazine journalism class in 1998.
May I sit down on your bed?" I ask the woman, unsure of the house rules. We are in a generic room that could be a part of any modern housing subdivision. Personal momentos dot the shelves, and a the wool blanket I remember snuggling under as a child is draped over a chair.

"I don't care if you sit on it or shit on it!" the woman responds, cackling to her self as she hobbles out of the room.

This woman lives with my grandmother. But she doesn't know my grandmother. In fact, no one really knows my grandmother anymore. The tiny explosions that have ravaged the blood vessels in her brain have also destroyed her ability to remember, to converse, or even to dress herself. Her life is a progression from one bedtime to the next, with the occasional intervention of nursing home staff.

I have never before seen her in this setting. I have been away at college, and the last time I saw her was Christmas two years ago. At that point, her short term memory was gone, and, as usual, you found yourself having the same conversation twice in a period of minutes. But she was there. She had an interest in her surroundings, and I knew this was the same person who used to take me home after church on Sundays and eat Pepperidge Farm chessmen cookies with me in her dining room. The staunch member of the DAR, who took me to nearby Monticello when I was in sixth grade. The woman who agreed to marry my grandfather after he took her on a grueling hike on the C&O canal towpath.

That woman is no longer there. Instead, my grandmother stares at her lap constantly, and her speech is limited to the immediate expression of preference. "I'm cold." or "I'm not hungry." Her hands shake, and she can barely eat without assistance. She is the shell of a person.

The scariest thing about all this is that she saw it coming. It was not a sudden, debilitating condition that struck one day, leaving no time for reflection. Instead her brain began to fail her bit by bit, just like a trick knee might slowly impair walking. At first she would forget a few details of conversations. Then she would forget entire events. She knew this was happening. She began to compulsively keep lists of everything -- She would routinely pull a rumpled piece of paper out of her purse and read over it, trying to remember the obvious -- where she was, who she was staying with, where her family was. She began to lose track of the date, and she would routinely address us as relatives who died decades ago. When I stayed at her house in rural Virginia during my freshman year of college, she woke me up at 7:30 in the morning so that I wouldn't miss the school bus.

You sometimes hear senility called a "second childhood." But this facile characterization does nothing to convey the horror that one must feel as the brain begins to fail. To me, this is the most terrifying aspect of growing old. It is not the loss of bodily function. It is the prospect of losing the ability to think and understand -- and to know that this is happening.

When I graduate from college this Sunday, I will think of my grandmother, sitting in her small nursing home room 500 miles away, quite possibly unaware that she has three grandchildren in college. And I will wonder about the future.

No comments: