My 93 year old grandmother is in the Alzheimer’s ward at the nursing home. She doesn’t have it, but when they first admitted her she was hallucinating from her medication so they thought she did. Now she’s comfortable and refuses to be moved to the regular ward. She knows the people and patterns of her environment and rules the ward with an iron fist and strident voice.
I walk in to visit her and find her wearing big, red, heart-shaped sunglasses with little rhinestones around the edges. One of the employees gave them to her for Valentine’s Day and now she wants to have them with her when he comes back in. Another employee called her “Miss Hollywood” so she’s tickled with her new moniker. She wears Tea Rose perfume and one of the nurses paints her fingernails. Her skin is as thin as tissue paper and her cornflower blue eyes are hazed over but she is still just as beautiful as always to me.
The residents gather in the lunch room for activities or just to socialize so that’s where she reigns from her wheelchair. She is from a mostly extinct generation. She lived through the Great Depression in rural Kentucky, through wars and social upheaval, from the hills of Appalachia to the Chesapeake Bay shore of Maryland. At 93, she has found a new purpose in keeping the residents of the nursing home in line. No matter how many times you tell her, she doesn’t really understand that the people there can’t control their actions. She believes they are just acting up. So when a tiny woman pushes her chair around to snatch at other people’s cups of punch, or when a gentleman walks around with his hands down his pants, my grandmother tells them to quit acting the fool. A tall, young looking man walks around in his own world, but when I come to visit, he makes a beeline for me, and my grandmother yells “Shoo! Get away from her!” while waving her arms at him. Several of the residents seem fascinated with me. They are probably fascinated with all visitors, but you can’t tell my grandmother that. I am polite, and answer them if they speak to me, but my grandmother keeps a close eye on it, ready to intervene on my behalf. A woman tries to grab my hair, so I have to do some artistic ducking, and another man comes up to tell me he loves me.
“What did he say?” my grandmother demands. “He said hi, grandma,” I tell her to keep the peace.
I sit with her through the bible study they have weekly with a group of Jehovah Witnesses that come to the nursing home. A resident is laughing loudly and my grandmother responds just as loudly that they need to be quiet because she can’t hear the pastor. She points out the one nurse she doesn’t like and asks where she got that outfit. My grandmother is an ancient Mean Girl to some, but others she talks to gently, and reminds them of what is currently happening. I haven’t cracked the code of who gets which treatment but I suspect her favors are bestowed whimsically.
She wraps the silverware for meals every day, and is convinced it won’t be done correctly if she doesn’t oversee it herself. She gives me a pair of gloves and puts me to work. I ask her about different things, and usually question her on things she’s told me about her past. This is supposed to help keep her sharp. Long ago, she told me about a snake handling church in Kentucky she went to. I wrote a poem about it, and now I ask her about the experience. She no longer remembers going to the church, or telling me about it. I move on to another subject.
The residents are gathered in a circle of wheelchairs in the center of the room for an activity. The aide has a beach ball, and wants them to bat it about the circle. This exercise is supposed to be a fun way to get them to move their extremities. Things don’t go as the aide had hoped. The lady next to me is whacking the hell out of it and yelling that she got the son of a bitch. She punches it into the face of another woman who is near catatonic. The gentleman on the other side of my grandmother catches the ball and feints with it back and forth before tossing it to another woman, who lets it bounce off her head. The aide decides this is too violent and gives them pool noodles to hit the ball with instead of their hands. This rapidly devolves into a game of kickball before the aide gives up and brings it to an end. My grandmother is not impressed. I’m amused.
It takes me fifteen minutes to say goodbye when it’s time to go. After my mother died, this woman was the most important to me growing up. My father tried to keep her out of our lives but she persisted. I saw her as an angelic savior, the one person who loved me unconditionally, and she’s been the one constant in my life. I make sure she’s comfortable and doesn’t need anything before promising to be back to see her again soon. I bend over her wheelchair to hug her, gently, remembering when I was small and would slam into her to hug her with all my little girl strength. I miss her before I get out to the car and every time I leave her, I fear it will be the last. She is so very old, but I don’t think I will ever be ready to let her go.