“Aunt Nina,” my mother said. “Aunt Tilly… Uncle Herb….” These aunts are my mother’s great-aunts, my grandmother’s aunts. We were driving Grandma home from Christmas dinner. We had found a topic of conversation that was safe. That is difficult. My grandmother has names of her great-aunts and uncles, and their jobs, and terrible fears, and tears under the surface, and the fact that I work at a school. A lot of other things she is missing.
Last Christmas, I strode out of church, pretending I had to go to the bathroom during “Silent Night.” I hoped everyone thought I had diarrhea, because the truth was worse: I scurried off to gulp down an ativan and pace a bathroom stall like a caged elephant. I was afraid of Christmas Eve church. Much more embarrassing.
The previous Christmas, we had missed church altogether because a couple of feet of snow had fallen. It was best I didn’t go, because I had been dumped three days before and I was pretty sure life wasn’t worth living when I could feel anything at all, which wasn’t often. When I did, occasionally, feel something, I would start to cry, and someone would say something sweet to me, which felt especially warm in my ginger and dry-ice heart.
My grandma has been given a kitten. She does not hate the cat. She just hates how it scratches, bites, wakes her up at night, and climbs the blinds. She has no husband, few friends, and seems to find her huge, boisterous family confusing and upsetting. Like Mickey Mouse in the Sorcerer’s Apprentice, she doesn’t know why there are so many of us, or why we keep coming.
Every day, for my grandma, is a combination of my two worst Christmases. She’s been dumped by her own brain. No one can really get to her to help her, although a lot of people try. It’s just as sad to try to love her as to see how unloveable she is. She’s snappy, accusatory, pouty, and defensive.
Grandma’s last defense against this is continual, mournful requests for a dog. Everyone’s decided a cat is all she can handle at this point, and everyone is right. “It’s not that I hate cats,” she says. “I would never do anything to hurt her. But I like dogs. I want a dog. I need a dog. When I go walking now, I’m all alone.”
I picked up the kitten, and in very un-kitten like fashion, she let me pet her and cuddle her without a single playful bite or claw grab at my fingers. She just purred and purred in her blotchy fur coat.
I put the kitten down, and I put my hand on Grandma’s shoulder. “What should I do when she climbs the blinds?” she said. “I tried to get her down, and she scratched me! I don’t know what to do!” She started to cry, a little, and I told her she was being very brave. She probably is. She’s more alone than she’s ever been, and she’s only going to go further down that road, until she doesn’t care that she’s alone because she doesn’t know the difference.
One of the worst parts of having a panic attack is knowing that it is in your head, so no one, absolutely no one, can help you. No one is in your head with you, and no one ever will be. It’s a place you are completely alone.
My mom and I left Grandma there, with the cat she does not hate, and we went on to my aunt and uncle’s. Someone made me a coffee and Bailey’s and I took a brownie. Part of the family– only ten or fifteen of us– were lounging around on the circle of couches and chairs.
We talked about Grandma, and how we might be able to make her happier. No matter how difficult she gets, people are still trying to help her. I guess we were all alone, too, alone in our heads with what we could or could not do– but it didn’t feel like it.