Through the door, I see her. Clad in a navy-blue sweat suit. Surrounded by her peers. A sad, pale looking bunch with nothing to do but stare. She sits in her wheelchair. I remember when I was little, I would play around in her wheelchair. Trying to squeeze through the tight space of the apartment, from one end of the table to the other. It was only a distance of a few feet, yet navigating the path was a challenge. Like most paths, it had an obstacle. The exercise bike. On the right side of the wall near the kitchen. I liked the challenge though, for it was fun wheeling myself around in the wheelchair. She didn’t need it then. Nor did she need this place where I now go to see her.
Dad says he’ll bring her out; so, we don’t have to deal with the rest of the crowd and their personalities and their frustrations. Mom, Bryce, and I walk over to the sitting area with a couch and a few chairs. I take the couch. Maybe so used to taking the couch from therapy. Mom and Bryce take a seat in the chairs. A few seconds pass by. Silent and still as each one dies. Then, she’s rolled in. The person of the hour. Our honoree. The birthday girl. We greet her with hellos, kisses, and happy birthdays.
She keeps saying that she can’t believe it. She forgot that it was her birthday. And no one there had reminded her. She’s so happy that we came; so surprised to see us all here- her son, her daughter-in-law, her grandchildren. For that I am ashamed. I should visit more. But visiting causes me so much pain, especially since 6South.
I used to think we had nothing in common. But now that I think of it, we’ve always had one thing in common. And it’s one of the most important things in my life. Music. We each have a love for music; one that she passed on to her two sons, that was passed on to me, that hopefully I will pass on. I remember asking if she could have a MP3 player, so she could listen to music whenever she wanted to. That idea was shot down; she probably wouldn’t know how to use it and if she did, she would probably end up losing it. It saddened me that she couldn’t have her own music. Music is so simple yet so vital, especially in that kind of setting. I would know. I did know.
I used to think we had nothing in common. I used to think that she didn’t even see me. She saw Bryce though. Maybe it was because he is a boy and that’s what she was used to. Maybe it was because he was always the baby. As she reads our names from the card and stumbles over Bryce’s, I wonder if she ever knew his name. She always just called him the baby. I remember her always saying that the baby needs juice. Almost every visit Bryce would ask for juice. So did I. She and Uncle David always had apple juice; and I loved apple juice. But I was old enough to get it myself.
I used to think she had nothing in common with anyone. My Grandma Williams was such a mystery; and I wasn’t a good detective. I wondered why she gave Christmas gifts like beef jerky and cheese from the catalogs. I wondered why she had only one friend, Mary, and why she didn’t hang out with her. I wondered how she was with her sisters and what they did growing up. I wondered who she was. I never got to know.
Now I wonder who she is and who she will become. Now I wonder how what we have in common has changed her and will change her, as it sure has changed me. Now I wonder how what she has in common with so many has changed her and will change her, as it sure has changed me.
We both know what it is like to be in a clinical setting for an extended period of time. I was on 6South for 6 months, she has been in the nursing home for 3 years. It seems like a huge disparity in time, yet when you’re in such a place, time stretches and contorts so that days feel like weeks and weeks like days or years and years like weeks or generations. You come to the point where time is just all the same. Time becomes just that, time. And each second longer you live, it dies. The hospital food, the unruly patients, the doctors, the social workers, the nurses, the staff who loves their job, the staff who hates their job, the activities. All on repeat. I remember feeling like the Israelites in the desert. Like I’d been wandering for 40 years. Feeling like I had lost all sight of God and His mercy. I wrote a song about it.
One day I was in bondage, then I was set free
One day my enemies drowned in the Red Sea
But today I don’t even know what day it is
Or how many have went by
Though it feels like it’s been years
Mumbling, stumbling in the dirt
Crying so many tears
Longing for that land of bondage
For at least I called it home
The last line really strikes me. How can you long for a land of bondage? Well at least the land of bondage was home. My grandmother and I both know the feeling. Before she went into the nursing home, there were several instances where fire marshals broke down the door of her home to do a wellness check. Thinking she was locked in and had fallen or something. She was fine; thank God. But that apartment was her own land of bondage. She was all alone, pretty much locked in, with no way out. For a while, she kept asking when she would go home. Now she’s stopped asking. She’s accepted that this place, the nursing home, is her new home. For me, the land of bondage was Boston. I loved and hated that town. I had never felt so wild, young, and free in any other place. I had never felt so great. I had never felt so sick, down, and bound in any other place. For a while, I just wanted to get myself together and rush back to Boston. I’ve stopped thinking that thought and have started planning a future in New York. It was once home, and now it is home again.
We both know how wonderful the feeling is when a visitor comes. I remember the warmth of seeing my therapist every Wednesday and Friday. Just knowing she would be there was something to look forward to. Something that allowed me to hang on and try to keep it together. I considered her to be my best friend during that trying time. I remember the warmth of seeing my mother and brother regularly, us exchanging stories of our experiences on the inside and outside. I remember the warmth of seeing my aunts and grandmother twice. I remember the warmth of seeing my father sometimes. I remember the warmth that almost felt like wrath, an emotion I didn’t and don’t allow myself to feel, when he didn’t visit for extended periods of time. My grandmother and I know both types of warmth.
So how could I not visit my grandmother except on holidays and special occasions? How could I not visit her, not knowing how many days or weeks or years she had left? It’s very hard. Very, very hard. And now the warmth that I had for my father has turned into a different warmth, compassion. He goes to see her every week, sometimes several times a week. Faithfully. And it’s hard seeing your mother age and forget what you told her a few minutes ago and last week and who died and what they looked like. It’s hard seeing your mother unable to walk. But being a child comes with that responsibility. As a child, you are supposed to take care of your parents as they age. You expect to see your parents ailing and dying, not to see your daughter ailing and wishing to die. As a father, how can you bear to see your child like this? This isn’t the way life is supposed to go. I realize that now. I understand, daddy. Your princess was locked up in a tower and you had no power to save her. So, you just waited outside for her to come back.
We can’t wait outside for Grandma Williams to come back. She will never come back. The truth is she will probably go away forever sometime during her stay in a nursing home. The truth is I never came back either. I mean I am back but not as the same person I was when I went in. And for some of those reasons we thank the heavens and for others we wish they would go to hell. There are so many like grandma Williams and I. In nursing homes, under psychiatric care. Aging. Dealing with mental illness, dealing with Alzheimer’s or Dementia. There are so many families like ours. Dealing with loved ones who have lost pieces of themselves that may never come back. Wondering how to welcome these new beings into their families. But these are things we are supposed to keep secret. Nobody talks about them. I will talk about them.
A few weeks ago, some of my father’s family came to visit Grandma Williams. They wanted to do a video for her sister Barbara’s 80thbirthday. I remember in the video them asking grandma what she would say to her sister on her 80thbirthday. What would I say to my grandma on her 76thbirthday? I would probably write her a letter, because I’m a writer and that’s what writers do. It would go something like this.
Dear Grandma Williams,
You may not remember why, and that’s okay, but today is a special day. Today is your birthday. Happy Birthday! You are 76 years old. I know you can’t believe that you are that old. I can’t believe that I am 21 years old. So, I can only imagine how you feel. Aging is hard. It comes with giving up many roles and taking on others. Going from child to adult. Going from caretaker to the one who needs care. But seeing the smile on your face today allows me to remember in admiration that despite it all, you can still age gracefully. I have to be honest, I don’t know much about who you were before the nursing home. But, I am willing to get to know who you are now and what little you remember of who you were then. This year, I promise to visit more because I know what it’s like being far from home for so long. I hope this year of your life is a good one. I hope in this year, you can move closer to our house. I hope this year, you can venture out of the nursing home for family celebrations. I hope this year you find joy and happiness. I hope this year we find a way to get you music. Because seeing you bop and clap to whatever we play when we visit warms my heart. Keep on keeping on.
Your granddaughter, Makayla