Thwick thwack thwick thwack thwick thwack… The elderly ladies at the nursing home heard the sound of Bethani’s flip flops coming down the hall, and four or five greeted her as she rounded the corner by the little beauty shop.
“Did you hear?” one asked.
“No, what?” Bethani asked.
“Etta died in her sleep last night, come look!” She said, as she grabbed Bethani’s hand and showed her the empty bed in Etta’s room.
“But we just played Bingo with her yesterday”, Bethani exclaimed. “She was fine, even won once.”
The ladies all nodded sadly, and walked back into their rooms, the news of the day shared.
Bethani sighed sadly, and we walked on to Grammy’s room. Room 103, which was the code we had to use to open the door in the Retirement Apartment Building she’d lived in for 18 years. A God thing, I think.
Bethani was shocked by Etta’s death, she’d spent a lot of time with Grammy and the ladies when she could between her college classes, and she helped take turns with me getting Grammy ready for bed each night. I laughed about how she knew every lady’s name and story, and here at the nursing home, the stories were often repeated, because they simply didn’t remember who they’d told it to. This was not a problem for Bethani as she listened intently yet again.
Grammy smiled such a joyous smile when she saw us. She still knew who we were at this point, but no one else, or even where she was or how she got there, or if she’d eaten or gone potty, or even if she’d slept. But, when we walked in, her Gootch and I, well, all was well with the world for that moment.
The first thing she told us was that she was angry at the lady who shared her room. She mouthed, “Pain in the ass” and then drew her finger across her neck depicting she’d like to kill her. Of course we laughed, and this made Grammy laugh, and I noticed once again that her teeth didn’t make it into her mouth and wondered how on earth she’d eaten breakfast and lunch without them.
Getting up to rinse them and pop them in her mouth, I noticed how loose the plates were and made a mental note to get some adhesive. There was another chip in one of the teeth, and I couldn’t know how it got there–carelessness on the part of a caregiver, or on the part of Grammy? Soon enough, they’d go missing altogether, maybe caught up in the sheets or taken by a wandering resident, no one knew. It’s a crap shoot even at the best nursing homes.
As Grammy told Bethani all about the visit she had with her mother that day (her mother had long since passed away, long before I married Rick, but it was Grammy’s joy to have these “visits” with her mom, so we listened to them with interest.) The pain of her here lingered even more on my heart, I didn’t think she’d be here, I hadn’t planned this. The decision to put her here had fallen on my shoulders only and it had put a horrendous strain on Rick’s and my marriage. This was his grandmother, but that of course means nothing, because she was mine, too. But also my responsibility for the past 20 years. The truth was, he couldn’t do what I needed to do, for whatever reasons, and this is the thing we must always remember. Each person has their role in the lives of others, and they aren’t all the same, each one has gifts different from the other.
It was a struggle to work all of that out in my mind and heart, and for many months following her admittance into the home, and the sole visits from Bethani or me, our marriage bore the toll of the weight of this decision and my worry for her safety. This painful rite of passage left us unable to connect on an emotional level, which made the whole thing worse and there was no easy way to get through it except let it come and work itself out like a strong marriage should.
I watched Bethani and Grammy talk, and I could remember them snuggled together in Bethani’s bed, and Grammy saying, “Sing me that song, Bethani.” And Bethani’s little girl voice would sing to her, and when she finished, Grammy would say, “Ain’t that nice?” Grammy and Bethani, they had a special bond, and it showed in this young woman who could have been anywhere else other than a nursing home playing a weekly game of Bingo, and joining in on the singalongs.
Soon, I would get the call, Bethani crying on the other end. “Grammy doesn’t know me anymore.” I guess we knew it was coming, and I left work at that very moment saying I needed to see Grammy, and when I walked in, Bethani’s tears still streaked her face. I knelt down on the floor by Grammy and said, “Hi Grammy, do you know who I am?” And she said, “Oh yes,” she smiled, “You are a very nice lady.”
It would be another year and many health crises before Grammy entered her heavenly home. We came less often to see Grammy in that year, Bethani had gone away to school, and my long hours kept me away. But truthfully, it was the pain that I felt when I saw her that kept my visits to a minimum. The blankness of eyes that once twinkled with recognition. The awkward silence till I was able to draw her out by saying trigger words like, May Street in Chicago where she grew up, and I’d ask about the pond she skated on across the street, the tavern her parents owned, and she’d go on and on, remembering like it was yesterday, because to her it was. But soon, even those memories became lost in the webs of a deteriorating mind.
On the day of Grammy’s funeral, in April 2008, as we were walking out the door our first Gold Finch landed on the feeder. It watched us as we walked to our cars, and now we see Grammy in those beautiful birds that are common visitors at our feeders year around. We imagine her in heaven, laughing her wonderful laugh, and waiting for us to visit when it’s our time, and she will say, “Sing to me that song,” and when we do, she’ll say, “Ain’t that nice?”