I pass through the glass door and scan the room for the tilted wheelchair and head of feather-soft hair. Chairs fill the room, most facing the large TV mounted on the side wall. A sea of grey hair. And then there she is. Head back, mouth open, eyes closed. Asleep amid the mumbling and the blaring game show host.
I take her hand. And check her over.
Nails painted. The soft white shirt peeking out from the zipped cardigan. The black knit pants & square brown sneakers. And then I flip the brakes open and roll her away.
To the quiet back room where we can be alone for a few minutes. Where I can collect myself and settle in for the short visit.
My 89 year old grandma has Alzheimers.
It started fairly slow & then all of the sudden it became really real, really fast. By the time the plans for the nursing home were made, it was serious. The woman that had been a steadfast in my life was fading, slipping away for longer and longer stretches of time.
And now it seems the disease has taken over, which means that letting go & holding on are happening all at once.
Letting go of the woman who was a daily presence in my childhood. My grandma with her matching jewelry and beautifully cared-for clothes. My grandma with her crystal blue eyes and her long slender fingers. These qualities are still there. They offer reassurance during these painful visits.
Reassurance that this is still the same woman who took breaks from her bookwork at the table to teach me card games on my days off from kindergarten. The woman who made sure she always had her grandkids’ favorites on hand, treating us all to maple-glazed long-johns & cherry-filled Bismarcks at the kitchen nook each Sunday after church.
Creating a home that would be the hub. The gathering place for holidays and the place to play cards on a Saturday night.
And now this home has been passed on for another family to make their own memories at the small built-in nook in the cozy kitchen.
As I sit and watch her sleep, I stroke her hand and pull up my favorite memories of the house with the pastel, flowered wallpaper. My aunt wrapping my hair in little papers and my eyes watering from the smell of my first home perm. Learning how to snap a dish towel with my cousins as we cleaned up from holiday gatherings & singing and dancing on the linoleum floor with my aunts.
This home that she made was a gathering space for women. My grandma, her 4 daughters and eventually their 6 daughters. A place to bare troubles, ask questions, and support each other. The place where I listened in awe as the women that I loved modeled how to share burdens. No question off-limits with family and no shortage of laughter, or wine.
All the while, grandma was there. Opening her door for family to meet up, sleep over, laugh together, and make memories. I can see her there. And I’m holding on.
But the letting go is testing us all. The disease and the complications that swirled up with it didn’t offer time to catch our breath and lean into each other around the kitchen nook. Too many logistics & changes happening each week. Meals, safety, daily hygiene – all sources of tension, struggle, stress. The day-to-day doing left little room for the being- the holding and cherishing.
Here I am letting go of how I thought this tribe of women would spend time together at this stage in our lives.
And holding on as I create space for my own daughter to share her struggles & joys with my sisters and mom. To watch us band together and support each other around a new table.
She hasn’t woken up this visit and I have let go of my hopes of rehashing any of our good times. She won’t ask about my growing kids & their activities; something she always prided herself on. She won’t play cards or offer me her famous Monster Cookies, but I’m still holding on.
I’m teaching my kids Gin Rummy and sitting around the table with them to share our troubles. I’m looking into my son’s crystal blue eyes and seeing her there. The mother, grandmother, great-grandmother who loved & gave, who struggled & believed. The woman who shaped who I am today.
I am letting go of any expectations that I hold for my time left with grandma. I am holding on to the good times & letting them flow over me as we sit and wait.