One of the ladies groaned, “She is like this every day,” and they mean the lady who must be told to sit at the table for dinner, who gets up and wanders away, must be told again, sits long enough to yell, “Why am I here?” and “This is not what I wanted!” and “How much to I have to eat?” and, my favorite, “What is this, SOME KIND OF GAME?”
These are the questions I ask myself. If anyone were transcribing my thoughts, they would regularly include why am I here? and What is this, some kind of game? So I found that lady a little funny (I mean you have to laugh, what else can you do). I’m sure it’s less funny if you have to hear her every day.
When I walked in that afternoon, my grandma happened to be standing in the living room sort of area, next to the front desk. Her head was low, and her eyes were squinted, about to cry. Her face is softer than ever, softening down, she had a cloud of curly white hair, a thinned but still solid body. She wore a rust-colored, corduroy hoodie, and her special Frankensteiny black shoes with velcro straps that make her iffy feet walkable.
My grandma, who used to walk faster than me, up and down Manhattan, still has prose about New York, which she loves.
“If someone would take me, I would go back,” she says, of New York. I would go back, in two days.
On this visit, she knew both her husbands, she had their names and how much she missed them, she had the idea of having had kids and grandchildren. She seemed to agree or at least didn’t argue when I told her she loves butterscotch. After many years of burning with anger at not being able to have a dog, she now believes (or did that day) she would soon have a dog again.
“I’m probably going to die soon,” she said. “I mean, none of us knows, but….”
“Yeah,” I said. “Are you scared?” She sat in one chair, and I had pulled up another.
“No,” she said. “I mean, we all have to do it.”
“I just need to think about how I am going to get prepared,” she continued off into the ether then, into poetry, about things she needed to prepare but she didn’t know what, about cars, where they are parked, and not parked, about beaches and how she cannot afford to go to the beach, and how the priest is not there enough, he used to be across the street, all motifs I knew were important to her, as they floated, unconnected to anything, in her thoughts.
Changing locations helped her. When Grandma would veer off into some real avant garde territory, I would say, “Hey, would you like to show me the dining room?” or “Could we see those flowers in the courtyard?” We moved six or seven times during our visit, and this helped reboot her mind.
To the extent of my knowledge, I can tell her who she is.
“You don’t cook here, but I’d rather go to a restaurant than cook my own dinner, anyway,” I told Grandma. “I know you would, too.” The only thing she cooked for us was Kraft macaroni and cheese, not that I am complaining.
We walked past a bingo game, and when someone yelled, “Bingo!” the organizer said gently, “Mabel, remember, it’s blackout,” but Mabel jumped in read off her list enthusiastically. Bingo rule enforcement appeared loose.
“You hate being hot,” I told my grandma. “You told me you were one of the people who came up with the idea that hell is hot.” She agrees.
“You always liked big cities, though, you used to take the train to Chicago to see your aunt, and you always loved New York. You always wanted to live in big cities and not small places like where you went to high school in Nebraska.” She did not argue. Which is progress. At some points in her illness, she might argue about such things.
We ran into the social worker in the hall, and she and Grandma had looked at magazines together recently. So the next time we perched, I saw a book of flower drawings and pulled it out to look at it. Grandma could not get interested in those.
I tried a book of landscape photos. With each state, I explained what she had done in that place. She has been a lot of places, so this worked pretty well.
“Ah, Alaska. You went on a cruise there. And Massachusetts: we drove through there in your motor home a long time ago. South Dakota: you went camping with your kids there.”
If she didn’t remember, she didn’t disagree, either, she nodded and said, “Oh, yes.” There have been times she would not only disagree, but get upset.
A couple of years ago, before she was moved into this unit, when she was more capable, she pointed to the place. “That’s what we’re all afraid of,” she said. “Do you think I have Alzheimer’s?”
“I don’t know,” I said.
‘Nobody wants to go there,” she said. “It’s awful. You don’t know how depressing it is to live with all these sick people.”
We went back to the dining room for dinner. “Tell them who you are,” Grandma said to the other ladies at the table. “Introduce yourself.” This suggested both that she was proud to have me, and that she did not have the prose to introduce me herself.
There were three other ladies at the dinner table. Berta chatted with me about Independence, Missouri, where she was from, “Harry’s hometown,” she said proudly, and I told her I had seen Truman’s house and his presidential library.
The other woman, Leslie, was from Long Island, and although absolutely everything residents there tell you is suspect, she had the accent to match. I believed her. “I just went to the beach on Long Island,” I told her. And that is about all I have to say about Long Island.
“How much do I have to eat?” loud lady was yelling at the other table.
Berta was embarrassed. “We don’t have that many visitors,” she said. “Everyone should be polite to them. It’s so important to be polite to guests.”
“It’s okay,” I said.
“She is so annoying,” Leslie said. “It’s so hard to listen to that, day after day.”
I nodded sympathetically.
Someone walked over and patted each lady on the shoulder. “How you doing?” This person, who worked at the place, had a gender-neutral appearance, but I noticed a name tag with feminine name.
“We’re fine,” the talking ladies said. The lady who hadn’t talked took a long minute and then said she was okay. She proceeded to use her fork to comb the hairbrush she had brought to dinner.
“He’s such a nice man,” my grandma said.
“She is very nice,” I said.
“Don’t worry about it, they all think I’m a guy. It doesn’t matter.” She winked.
“Okay,” I said. It didn’t matter.
She’s always been extroverted, and she still says hello to everyone she sees, asks how people are doing, watches other residents struggle to get up, and sit down, and wheel around, and worries about them.
“Oh, do you thinks she is going to be okay? Do you thinks she can get there?”she asked me several times.
“I think so,” I said. “I’ll watch and make sure.”