By John Lee Pendall
Her mouth hangs open and there’s nothing in her eyes.
She’s alive, but she’s not living. A prisoner who doesn’t even see her cell. My grandma.
This article comes after I broke down and sobbed in my pillow. The damn dam finally cracked, and all the memories came flooding back in. I don’t know what to do with them; I don’t know how they fit. Maybe they don’t, maybe life is under no obligation to make sense.
I moved in with my grandma in August of 2019, a few weeks before her 82nd birthday. My uncle was getting kicked out by the landlord, and he was due in prison in a few months anyway (coke paraphernalia). My aunt and mom didn’t have the space, so I moved in with her instead. I didn’t even think twice about it, it was an instant yes. Moron.
I packed up and left home, where I’d been living with my parents for 20 years. My uncle was supposed to be gone already, but he was still moving out as I was moving in.
I remember standing in front of my grandma’s place, my meager possessions laid out on the lawn. Who was I then? I was so much younger than I am now, a year later.
The gulf between that John and me might as well be as large as the one between me and a toddler, and I’d already been aged so much after my father had heart surgery and my best friend’s parents were murdered and I saw the scene. All of that (and more! Woohoo!) within the span of two years.
What came next, after I walked through the door, was beyond all possible hells I’d ever imagined.
How can I write it? It would take a book to go through it all, a book that would be equal parts boring and horrifying. Besides, even now the memories only come back as images, disjointed moments that my brain tried to lock away.
There’s so much…the incontinence, cleaning her up after she soiled her Depends, playing gin rummy with her eight hours a day, endlessly listening to Conway Twitty, the battle of trying to get her showered, how I started falling in love with C, the last caregiver we hired, the time my grandma threw her cane across the house in a rage, so much.
I don’t want to go into all of it; I want to live forward. I even did some extensive editing on this article (trimming out some quality prose along the way). Sharing everything with all of you would be more sadistic than cathartic. “Here’s what I went through, now you get to go through too, muahahahaha.”
The one memory that stands out from the others was when she had a migraine headache that spiraled into a panic attack. She was so afraid that she was shaking, she didn’t remember ever having a migraine before. I tucked her into bed and sat with her for hours.
She asked, “What’s wrong with me?” There was something different in her voice. I looked up and saw her in her eyes— my grandma. She’d had a moment of clarity. She wasn’t asking about the fear or the headache, she was asking about all of it. She was asking about her Alzheimer’s.
I got up, kissed her on her forehead, and said, “You’re okay, everything’s alright.” She relaxed and fell asleep.
Part of me didn’t leave her room that night. It’ll be in there with her for the rest of my life. Looking back, there are pieces of my heart scattered all throughout my life, like a puzzle that was gradually disassembled over the years with each piece being buried in a different corner of the world. I feel like Frankenstein’s monster in reverse, pieces of myself falling off along the side of the road.
By February, I couldn’t take it anymore. We couldn’t get her meds figured out, and I was eight grand in debt after caring for her without a job. Out of the blue, a room opened up at the local nursing home.
I promised her that I was only going be a few miles away, so I could visit her all the time. I told her about all the friends she could make, all the games she could play. I promised her that everything would be fine.
COVID-19. The nursing home locked down the day after she was admitted. I’ve only seen her through glass since then, and the residents have to social distance from each other. No games, no friends, no me. She became violent with some of the nurses, so they increased her meds.
I don’t know if it’s the sedatives or the illness, but my grandma isn’t “here” anymore at all. I hope, above all else, that she’s in a dreamland, a pleasant world of her own creation, though I fear that she’s trapped in herself and that she’s aware of it.
If I focus on it, I feel so guilty that it makes me want to vomit. Ultimately, getting her a room there was the best choice. She’s safer there. She has a whole staff taking care of her instead of one visually impaired depressive.
But she’s still alone. I didn’t even have the chance to go through her routines with the staff. I couldn’t help ease her into her new life. I couldn’t…
The madness didn’t stop when we got her in the home. The next two months, alone in her house, were maybe the darkest period of my life. I slipped so far into depression that the sorrow permanently cured my lifelong anxiety disorder. There’s a point down there, in that pit, where you go beyond fear. The darkness sinks so deep into your marrow that you’d smile at death if it walked through the door.
I even speak differently now. My voice is lower, quieter, and I never waste a silence.
Seven months later, and it still hasn’t left me, that darkness. Whenever I think it’s gone, it comes back with a vengeance. Even though my brain locked away all these memories until her vacant face unearthed them, there are emotional shifts that have nothing to do with memory. They’re in me, tracks in gray matter.
There are moments, sweet fleeting glimpses of the passion for living that I once knew. Like sand in the hourglass, they slip away, out through some crack in the bottom that empties into nothing. I secretly hope that someone will save me, that someone will sweep through my life and show me what to do.
Despite the pain and madness, caring for my grandma gave me a sense of purpose.
So, still sitting here at the edge of the universe, I do what I did when I was with her, what I did when I was stranded in the country, what I’ve done through so many long nights in the past—I wait.
Editor: Dana Gornall
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