A few weekends ago I had the chance to visit my maternal grandmother. The last time I saw her, she was in an apartment at a Presbyterian Manor living semi-independently. She had been living there since before my grandfather’s passing four years earlier. The apartment was an end unit with a private entrance, a patio and a few plants and, inside, wall hangings from the home they’d first retired to before I was born. The familiar smells of that house were gone. They were replaced with the smells of medication and industrial-strength cleaning solvents. The framed cross-stitch, family photographs, and ceramic lamps fit like laughter at a gravesite.
This time, we parked along the half-circle drive, and entered through the main doors. To the left, the receptionist desk was empty. I followed my parents to the elevator. We filled it as best we could, equidistant from each other, leaning against the walls the way you do in an elevator. “I always have to prepare myself for this,” my mother said looking at my father as we rode to the second floor. I realized I should perhaps prepare myself as well.
The door opened. My mother turned down a long hallway. In a dim commons area with couches and a large television, cluttered with wheelchairs and walkers, a Nicholas Sparks movie was playing, and those not watching it outnumbered those who were. We passed to the left a small nurses’ station. A door on the right was open and a Notre Dame football game was just under way, the announcer’s voice blaring on the television.
Dad and I stood in the hall while Mom knocked on the door. “Let me make sure that Grandma’s dressed,” she said to us. It was four in the afternoon.
Each morning in my real life, I charge out the door, dressed for the day with work or women on my mind. I navigate erratic traffic patterns and at work make dozens of decisions based on a variety of considerations. I coordinate my social calendar via emails and Facebook, update my status with something witty and vague, and cross off line items from my to-do lists. After work I grab some food, find some friends or a good book, surf the Internet or the TV channels, or fulfill some obligation I’ve committed to.
Here, in this assisted living facility, real life isn’t defined by what they do. Real life here requires assistance. Not unlike the rest of the world, only more obviously.
The hallway is wide and clear of any obstacles. There’s a handrail along both walls, for stability. I stood thinking how depressed this place was. Clean, orderly, and blandly decorated. It lacked anything like what we call life. Yet the people there represented long lives of experiences, and perhaps even a hard-earned wisdom that comes with those lives. I wonder if wisdom is perhaps blandly decorated.
But wisdom it seems has left my grandmother. “They’re moving her to the Alzheimer’s unit,” my mother had written me the week before. “It's sad, because it's the very place she never wanted to go.” That’s where my grandfather was at the end. “Just pray that the Lord will take her home,” mom instructed me.
Now, we were visiting her the weekend before they moved her. She was in good spirits and in a bit of clarity. When we walked in, she was sitting in a folding chair talking on her rotary-dial telephone. I looked around her small room. The narrow single bed sat in the middle with a soft-colored quilt tucked in neatly around the edges. On it, I noticed faded stains that reminded me of a coastline on a map. A small dresser and vanity mirror stood in the corner next to a recliner and a lamp, and the telephone. There were pictures of all her children and their families. Even outdated photos, but memories nonetheless.
To the person on the other end, she was saying, “Well, it’s Sharon and Brad, and…” she looked at me with a look that could’ve been mistaken for fear but I think was simply complete unknowing.
I smiled, “Adam. Sharon’s son.”
“What? Oh,” and then to the telephone, “Adam. Yes.”
She talked for a few minutes then handed the phone to my mother. It was Mom’s younger brother. “Yes, it’s us,” she said to him, affirming that we indeed were here in the room. It wasn’t my grandmother’s brain playing tricks on her.
“You have a nice room here,” I said.
“Oh, yes. It’s okay. I wish Daddy could stay in here too, but he stays in another room.” Pause. “I don’t think I’ve ever been in his room though.” She’d raised nine children. She’d referred to her husband more often as “Daddy” than anything else in all those years.
Mom hung up the phone and turned to her mother. “How are you mom? You look good.”
“Well, I’m good, probably better than I look,” the wrinkles at the corners of her eyes were like parentheses, letting us in on the subtext. We laughed. Her good sense of humor had not changed.
She touched her hair with a fragile, discolored hand. She always did that when attention was directed toward her. Her other hand lay in her lap clutching a folded tissue. She was sure to use and reuse the same tissue, a habit started out of harder times. She folded her hands around it again and placed them in her lap.
“Are you in school then?” she asked, looking at me.
“Nope. I’m working full time. I live in Chicago.” I explained what I did, and she listened politely.
My parents explained that my other grandmother’s birthday had brought us to Kansas this weekend and that we were only visiting for an hour or so. Grandma asked if we were staying to have supper with her, but we already had plans, my mother explained.
For a bit, our conversation turned to her shoes. Typically, she wore small, neutral-colored flats. But she was wearing forest green Crocs.
“I don’t suppose they’re the kind I like,” she said as though she were drawing that conclusion about someone else based on what she had learned about them. She looked at them more closely and seeing the holes in them. “I couldn’t even wear these outside if it were raining. My feet would get all wet!”
She was certainly correct, ever the pragmatist. How could one explain to someone so disengaged that these shoes were “cool,” and that for that reason they were worth having? We resorted instead to more pragmatism: “They are quite light weight, aren’t they?” But the absurdity of the shoes remained. It amazed me how quickly we can see things from a new perspective and recognize how misguided our own perspective seems in that light.
She turned to me again and asked about school. I explained that I had a full time job and lived in Chicago. She was attentive. When I explained exactly what I did, she pondered it to herself for a few moments.
“He loves to read just like Daddy did,” Mom said to Grandma.
“Oh. Yes,” Grandma recalled. Her words were always simple and stark. “We should go visit Daddy while you are here too. But,”—a moment’s pause—“I guess Daddy’s not living anymore, is he?”
I wondered how many times a day Grandma realized that. The blunt sadness for her seemed only diminished by a sort of vague familiarity. It was like the coat rack in the room. When she was not looking at it she did not think about it, but whenever her attention fell upon it, she recognized it for what it was.
“Well, mom, we need to be going,” my mother began wrapping up our visit. “I’m planning to come back tomorrow to see you again, okay?”
We all stood, and my mother hugged her. Then my father. With a fragile hand she hugged his neck and pecked his cheek, her glasses askew in doing so. It was very labored and mindful.
When she hugged me I was surprised by her strength. It was not frail or weak or half-hearted. With a hand near my face, she pecked me on the cheek with her parched lips.
“It was good to see you again,” I told her.
She gathered her cane and shawl, then her purse.
“Are you going to go out with us?” Mom inquired.
“Yes. I’m hungry. I think supper should be shortly. Will you be staying for supper?”
“No, mom, we have to leave, but you’re welcome to walk out to the elevator with us.”
In the hallway, she took hold of the rail and put her hand in my arm. We made our way slowly, past the nursing station. The TV volume of the football game had been turned down considerably, if not off. In the commons, slumped on the couch was a women my grandmother wanted us to meet, “Tantelisean.” We said it was very nice to meet her. The conversation lulled.
“Here. You stay here, Mom,” my mother directed her to seat on the couch. “We need to leave now.”
Grandma accepted this. She gave each of us a hug again, in the same order, with pecks on the cheeks for Dad and me. It was with the same meaning and care that she hugged and kissed us, glasses askew. I laughed to myself at the adsurdity, but it spoke of something else: wisdom. It was wisdom not built on a sound mind. The Alzheimer’s had claimed that. It was wisdom woven into a habit of character. It was in the shabby repetition of goodbyes that I witnessed a wisdom built upon years of choosing. Now with all those memories cut out from underneath, what remained was this expression of love.
We eased ourselves toward the elevator, waving again.
“Tantelisean,” my mother informed me on the elevator, “was her aunt who she was close to when she was a little girl. She thinks that woman is her Tantelisean.” Then to my father, “She was in many places today, wasn’t she? In different moments she was in her childhood, then at home with Daddy, then in school, then here. She lives always in the present moment though.”