Saying Your Thank Yous

I made it all the way to St. Louis this year for the holiday, which I don't think I've done in over a decade. My family is somewhat spread out through Missouri, so each year, the holidays are swapped between some place in Missouri I can only pronounce & not spell and Memphis. But because of various reasons, this year, Christmas was actually in St. Louis. It looked like we weren't going to make it because Memphis had this rush of cold weather and freezing sleet that packed the streets pretty well, but we still managed a safe trip.

For some reason that has never made itself clear, there is an unspoken divide between my immediate family and my father's side. I haven't seen my cousins in years with the exception of my grandfather's funeral earlier this year. My sister and parents have made a few trips up here to visit my grandmother (my father's mother). She is in a nursing home, but her mind is quickly fading. Even though I really only had two full days here, I wanted to see her.

I'm not sure what I expected today, but I know I expected much more than I got. The facility that she lives in was enough to make me cry. As soon as my mother buzzed the front doors open, she was sitting in a chair. And from the stories I've already heard, I have a pretty good idea she spends every single day in that chair. When we walked up to her, there wasn't an ounce of recognition. She was dressed in a pink jogging suit that happened to be painted with balloons with all her grandchildren's name on them. I kind of assumed I could cajole her into acknowledging me, but within seconds, I realized that wasn't going to happen. She spoke so softly and looked frightened. I tried to tell her that I was her granddaughter and pointed to the "Jennifer" balloon on her shirt, and she just nodded. I wanted to talk to her, to ask her how she's been, or ask if anyone came to see her yesterday or something, but she wasn't able to answer anything. I asked my mom if I could see her room. It was simply a bed against the wall with her clothes hanging on a clothes rack. There were very few pictures on the wall or anything that made that room look like a home. I couldn't believe this is where she lived. I tried to walk around the facility, but my heart felt like it was being broken in slow motion. I looked into the rooms for a sign of life, and all I could see was death. I didn't understand why she was there. I didn't understand why she wasn't with one of her children. I didn't understand why we had left her there to sit and wait. She looked like a prisoner.

I had planned on staying awhile to talk with her, but I really didn't know what to say. All my grandmother seemed to be capable of saying was, "Thank you. Thank you so much for all you've done. Thanks a million." She would interchange these thank yous, and the only thing I could see her look at was the red nail polish my sister had applied months ago. It was badly worn, but she still looked at her hands and continued to thank me. I don't know if she thought I was my sister or that we had done something for her. I tried to ask her why she was thanking me, but I only got more thank yous. I told her that we were leaving and that I was going to hug her. As I bent down, I felt her squeeze me back. I was leary of scaring her. My mother bent down and went to kiss her. My grandmother looked slightly frightened, but she puckered her lips anyway and hugged my mom.

I wondered if she is somewhere in that mind of hers, trapped, and unable to get out. I wondered if there was some part of her screaming for us not to leave her. It has to be paralyzing in some capacity to her. I cannot imagine her life in that chair. To sit, day in and day out, waiting. I wanted so badly to take her with us. I believed she could get better if she were surrounded by family and not strangers. My father said the last time that he visited her that she had brief moments where she seemed like her old self, but they were few and far between. I wanted so badly to see one of those moments, but I didn't think it would happen in that home.

My friend Marty takes care of his mother some times. His sister is the main caretaker, and she has two children of her own to raise and a husband. He tries to help one night during the week and maybe pull a weekend night to help her out. Any time that he talks about the situation, he gets very agitated and says, "I have to stop talking about this. It upsets me." He hates taking care of his mother. He tired to quit helping his sister, but after a few weeks, he felt like he couldn't abandon her like that.

It seems strange to me that we have come so far as a society to improve our life span. We're living decades longer than the generations before us. I watched my grandfather lose his health and now my grandmother is losing her mind. I don't understand what good it does to continue life without the quality. I kind of feel like the elderly are this dirty little secret we just want to push away. We don't want to surround ourselves with the heartbreak of watching them deteriorate, so we push them out of the way, out of our minds. We put them in nursing homes only to visit on a passing holiday to maybe only make ourselves feel like we did something.

My grandmother is sitting in some room, six hours away from me just waiting. Something in my heart tells my that today may be the last time that I ever see her alive, and with that, I just felt my heart ache.


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