I've been trying for weeks to write coherently about where I am and what I'm doing. And all I keep coming back to is this: I am living on my grandmother's couch, from which I can see my grandmother's hospital bed at all times. I am making three breakfasts a day, when necessary, and sleeping in 10- 25 minute bursts (finally, a practical use for my painsomnia!) and talking about what happened 75 years ago as if it were happening right now. And I am doing all of those things because my grandmother is dying.
Or she's not. (It depends on the day, really.)
And it's happening both too quickly and too slowly; too tenderly and too angrily; too neatly and too messily. And the rest of my life right now makes about as much sense as that previous sentence.
About two months ago, I started to get more worried than usual about my grandmother, because during our weekly visits and phone calls, she was saying things that made very little sense, her voice would get whispery or slurred, she'd go off on tangents about subjects we'd not been discussing, and, eventually she stopped being up for visits, and was ending our phone calls rather abruptly ~ sometimes in the middle of a sentence, she'd say "Well, give my love to everyone: talk to you next week", and hang up the phone. Now she's never been particularly skilled at using the phone (especially the newfangled cordless 'doohickey' my uncle installed for her a few years back), so this was strange, but not completely out of character. When I'd ask my uncle how she was, he'd say things that sort of glossed over my concerns - not addressing them so much as giving me a blanket "oh, it's been a bad day/week" and moving past it.
But enough things were happening that I was majorly concerned, so when he started ignoring my calls 3 times out of 5, and she stopped being available for even the slightest phone call, I decided it was serendipitous that the upstairs bathroom needed re-tiling at the exact moment that I needed to get into the house, and asked my uncle for refuge from the smells, hoping it would get my foot in the door here. I got that far in, and - aside from Tuesdays with the kids and a shower at home, and my own doctor's appointments - I haven't left since.
Because she wasn't just not feeling well: she was decidedly different. Failing. Stumbling over sharp edges and corners in conversations that should have gone smoothly. Sleeping all hours of the day, and getting her days and nights confused. Asking for dinner at 6:45 in the morning, demanding to know why we were starving her, even though she'd just eaten at midnight.
Her confusion is a live wire of a thing: you never know which Grandmother is going to wake up. The one who remembers who you are and how she used to lay you down to sleep on a quilt in the den while your mother went to school, or the one who thinks this place, the house she's lived in for 50 years and raised 9 children in, is a hotel or a hospital that you work in and that she'd like to check out of thank you very much. She could take a nap at noon and wake up around three, ready to sweep the porch and sit out in her rocker. Or she could stay awake till 4 in the morning, moaning because you've just told her that four of her sons are dead and she thinks it just happened right now.
"Humor her as much as possible" the hospice people say: If she tells you she sees her dead sister bustling around in her socks and assigning chores, play along if you can. If she thinks she's the charge nurse and is waiting for doctor's orders, let her wait till she gets tired and moves on. That's all good in theory, but in practice, it's having her call you a traitor because you knew that her brothers weren't really dead and you've been letting them hide here all this time and now won't bring them out to her. It's her giving you a dead-eyed stare for 30 minutes because she's sure that you've allowed her "little boys" to be sent away without her consent. It's handing her her purse 4 times in an hour, and helping her count and recount the same $197 dollars in cash she's had in there since May. It's eating steak and baked potatoes at 11:30 a m because she insists it's time for dinner.
Some of those things are doable, and others - because even in her confusion, she's no dope - are not. If she tells you she say a dog in the kitchen last night, and you play along, she wants to know who is feeding the dog, and where it is staying right now, and who allowed a dog in her kitchen in the first place, and aren't you allergic to dogs? And here is where my poor lying skills are put to the test, and where she sees through all my attempts to talk around the subject, and where, inevitably, one of us will wind up upset.
At first, my uncle assumed that this was a complication of one of the medications she was given for her fall down the stairs - she is particularly sensitive to pain meds, and the oxycodone made her hallucinate enough that the doctor took her off it immediately - but now she's been off those meds for months, and she is not improving. And we're remembering little things: like that fall down the stairs - what was she doing up, getting ready for church at 3:30 in the morning in the first place? Like all the conversations we've had to repeat because she didn't remember what we were talking about at all. Like how she seemed to forget that her son and nephew had both died last year, and we'd all assumed that it was just how she was grieving this time - that, having so much heaviness to bear, her brain had decided to remember it only when necessary, and to spare her most of the time. How even last year, maybe two years ago, our visits were getting shorter, and she was going less places, and sleeping more, and participating less, and all of the little things that seemed like just "oh my goodness she's going to be 95 years old, if she wants to go slower, cut her a break!" and now seem like "how did we miss that?"
I think he still assumes that the "confusion" will clear up, at least some - I'm the only one using the word dementia, and when I brought it up the first time, I might as well have punched myself in the face, for the look he gave me. But we both know - this is not normal, this is not getting better, this is not going away.
The hospice people were called in when her aftercare for the fall ran out: she still wasn't able to shower by herself or even get up the stairs very much, and her congestive heart failure was progressing to the point where she needed oxygen some of the time. So the hospice people came in, and keep coming in to help us, but they aren't here to stop anything from happening - just to make it easier on her - and us, I suppose - as it happens.
Her bed's been in the downstairs dining room since the fall (and by fall I mean both the tumble down the stairs and the season which it occurred), but now it's a hospital bed, and the room still has the look of a temporary, make-do space. Her clothes - the housecoats she wears everyday - are stacked on chairs and on the buffet, she doesn't have even a drawer down here she can call her own. I want to have things brought down, things she can recognize as part of her room, pictures or a bedside table, or something, but she still thinks she'll make it back upstairs, and my uncle sides with her (and is the only one of the three of us who can climb the stairs), so I am outnumbered.
I know I'm making some progress with him - he's started telling his brothers and sisters more of the truth when they call. Grandmother is good at pretending - on the phone or when the doctor/nurse/hospice person is here - that she's holding it together pretty well. And sometimes she is. But those times are getting fewer, and the times when she is not are getting more severe, and to say anything else at this point is straight out lying.
I've been avoiding cousins calls for weeks now, knowing that I have to say the truth, and not wanting the words to have to come out of my mouth. My brother knows now, my sisters: telling them was impossible - what do I say? She is not doing well, except for when she is fine. She needs the oxygen every day now, but sometimes it makes things so much better you wonder if it isn't fairy dust. Other times the cannula might as well be blocked, for all the good it does as you sit and watch her chest heave, hoping she catches the next breath. How do you explain that things are routine and desperate all at the same time? How do you get them to see that it is urgent, but not critical today, and that that may change by the time we finish our conversation?
I put such a look of fear on my brother's face, and I know that I feel it as well - The end is coming, and I can't stop it but at the same time, it's just an ordinary Tuesday here, with Grandmother lamenting the state of her curtains ("they never got washed for Christmas, and here it's Easter all ready" "No Grandmother: it's the 4th of July" "That's what I said: didn't I?" "Yes ma'am") and hoping that mail might be interesting. Nothing out of the ordinary, really, except for everything.
When I say that it's happening "too quickly and too slowly", I mean she would hate this, if she knew. She does hate it, when she realizes. Sometimes she has clarity, and those times are the worst, because she knows that she isn't clear the rest of the times - that her days are blanks and holes and that during those blanks and holes she may say things she doesn't mean.
"I hope you know how much I love you," she'll say when she's clear, as if to make up for all the times she'll forget who I am tomorrow, all the misunderstandings we'll have before she's clear again. She was never one to say that, not really: we all knew she loved us, but it wasn't her way to come out and say it. So it means all the more that she does it now. And I do know, I do.
But I don't know what to do, because most of the time I'm just sitting here. Doing the laundry and talking about the time her uncle was killed on the ferry to Staten Island, marking time. We make it through another day, and I write a big X on the calendar, because she's sure to ask me 17 times tomorrow what the date is, and if it's not marked off we'll have to argue about it, and above all, I'm trying to keep the peace. When she gets upset, her breathing gets worse, and she gets more confused, and it certainly isn't worth that worry, to remember the date.
I can watch her heart beat in her neck - the vein there bulges some, and it makes the skin expand like a bullfrog's sometimes when she's breathing too hard. Sometimes her whole chest caves in on a breath, and I hold mine while I wait for it to re inflate. Enough beats, enough bulges, and we make it through to another X, and I wonder what I'm doing here, when she seems OK, really: tired, sure & confused, but maybe I'm making too much of it. Maybe I'm worrying everybody and throwing off our whole summer plans and lives and she'll just keep ticking, just keep making it through the days.
It's not a waste, me being here, because I'm spending time with her, which has always been one of my favorite things, but is now also a strain at times; and I sit and listen to her worries - and oh boy does she have worries, she might be 89% worries at this point; and I make sure she doesn't tangle herself up in the sheets when she gets up to go to the bathroom 16 times during the night, but sometimes it feels like I've put everything on hold until the next horrible thing happens, and that's a terrible feeling.
Like I'm waiting for her to get worse, because I know she's not going to get better, and I wonder if she thinks that's why I'm here, because she can feel how worried I am sometimes, can read it on my face.
"Why are you so sad?" She'll ask me. When she asks me with my name, I can smile, and say "not sad, just tired", and have it be the truth. But sometimes she'll ask as if my being sad is part of some plot against her, or just another sign that she's dead and nobody told her, or yet another example of how we are all hiding things from her, and then I don't have the poker face to pull it off. And I hope I'm not making it worse, feeling sad, when she needs me to bring peace, so I suck it back in, and hope it doesn't leak out so much.
I feel like a float in the Macy's parade, I've got so much sucked in. Because today is Wednesday, July fourth and it's only 9:30 in the morning, and so far she's had a sandwich at 2:30, cookies and milk at 6:00, heard the doorbell ringing at 6:15. And we've talked about a non-existent trip to New York that nobody is making, the time in the 70s that she walked down to listen to the Pops with my two oldest cousins and they all danced in the street on the way home, and at least twice she's told me how to wash the windows when we take the curtains down today.
You know, at the end of those parades, a long time ago, they used to just cut the strings and let the floats drift away. I'm not sure I want to be around when the time comes to let all the sadness out, and floating away sounds heavenly right about now. But I'm here. And I'm sticking. And it sucks, and I wish I could write about it in a way that made logical sense, but it doesn't make logical sense, so we're stuck with this, pouring a little bit of the sadness and worry and stress out onto this page, so I can face going back in there and talking about the goddamn curtains again while I try not to count her pulse or monitor her breathing.