My grandmother, Opal, never raised her voice. She found joy in the simplest things: reading a book, playing scrabble, or completing her crossword puzzles. Her house was spotless all the time; not one thing was ever out of place. Her curio cabinet with filled with shiny, colored dishes and trinkets. Some trinkets she bought at stores and others she found at garage sales. I remember her candy jar as it was always filled to the top. I loved the maple candy, but my very favorites were the Bullseyes. She had bacon and eggs for breakfast every morning and, of course, coffee. Mashed potatoes were her favorite, and she made the best pies anyone ever ate. She would take the scraps of dough, which she made herself, and throw some cinnamon and sugar on it, roll it up, and bake it. Those were the best cookies. Grandma was always happy to see us, and she called everyone honey. Her hugs were better than any other hug I ever had. She really loved us. Her family was more important to her, than anything.
Opal is 97 now, and for more than ten years, she has lived in a nursing home in the Alzheimer’s unit. In the beginning, she was still vibrant and joyful. She spent most of her time with her roommate, Mary, who was a lot like my grandfather. Mary was pretty rough around the edges, and she swore like a champ. Grandma latched right on to her. They would talk all day and walk the halls most of the evening. The nurses got a kick out of the two of them.
At that point, Grandma didn’t remember my name but was familiar with me because of my long, dark hair. She always told the same story: she was in a fancy hotel with her cousins and they served really good food.
My grandmother was always a happy, positive person, even after the Alzheimer’s diagnosis. She told my mother, “I choose to be happy,” and that was well into the disease. The nursing home played music from Grandma’s era every day, and she would just sit there and sing like no one was watching. She never swore and she never missed a Cubs game. She called them her little cubbies and she belted out “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” at every family party we ever had. She would be overjoyed to know they finally won the World Series.
One day we were in her room and I pointed out a picture of her. She quickly snapped, “That’s not me. That’s some fat lady.” I laughed so hard, but the truth is grandma didn’t even recognize herself.
She Deteriorates: Her Cross
As time passed, she deteriorated and singing turned into beautiful humming. I could see her disappearing more and more into herself, and it was hard to watch. We couldn’t take her out of the nursing home much anymore because it was just too hard for her. She needed to stay in her own surroundings to remain peaceful.
I found it difficult to visit when they participated in activities because they were so childish. They colored pictures like kindergarteners or rolled a ball to each other across a table. While I am sure there is a purpose behind it, the grandma I remember was an awesome Scrabble player; she knew words I never even heard of. She was smart but now she is unable to complete even the simplest activities without assistance. Imagine all of the things you would never want to happen to someone you love, but they are happening and there is nothing you can do about it.
The Disease Progresses
A few years ago, she fell and broke her hip. Since then it has been pretty bleak. She sleeps most of the time now and eats so little I don’t know how it sustains her. She hardly talks anymore, and when she does, nothing makes sense. Grandma has become one of those people who just sit in the wheelchair, unaware of their surroundings, sleeping the days away. It is the saddest thing I have ever seen.
I miss the person she was. The beautiful woman who loved so big and had such a bright light in her eyes. Now when I look into her eyes, I don’t see her anymore. There is an emptiness there and it is as if she has already left us. Alzheimer’s is devastating because it steals away the very person you are. All of the memories of your spouse, your children, your whole life. For the last several years, all Grandma could remember was her childhood. Now, she doesn’t even remember that. But this is the progression of the disease: it slowly robs you of everything you are and everything you have ever known.
Moments of Lucidity
I don’t know why she is still here. I know God has a reason, but I do not understand it. I have watched her deteriorate into nothing, to lose her very self and it breaks my heart. I know it is important to visit her, but to see her suffer that way pains me so deeply I find it difficult to go too often.
The last time I was there, she slept most of the day and then suddenly woke up and shouted, “I’m sick of sitting in this chair. I want to go home now.” I could have burst into tears right then, but I knew I couldn’t. So I told her, “I know, Gram, I know.”
She has these moments of lucidity that I almost wish never happened because I don’t want her to be upset or aware of the fact that she isn’t home surrounded by loved ones, but instead strangers who suffer the same horrific disease she does. What a terrible end for such a lovely person, for any person.
As a family, we are all suffering with her. Her cross has become our cross because of love: her love for us and ours for her. Each time we visit her, it is an act of mercy that inflames our hearts with compassion, not only for Grandma, but for all people who suffer from this disease and their families. I think that is because we understand each other suffering. We know what it is like to watch someone so special lose themselves. There is an unspoken empathy that exists between all of us.
Through Grandma’s suffering, she is unknowingly teaching us about love and empathy. We suffer because she suffers and that changes the deepest parts of who we are, even though we are not consciously aware of it.
Maybe this has been Jesus’ plan all along: we can be brought closer to Him through the changes her illness has created in us. It is a beautiful and comforting thought because it gives great merit to her suffering while bringing us closer to Jesus and His cross. I know if Jesus presented it to her in this way, she would have agreed to this suffering without a thought because of her love for all of us.
I pray for her every day and ask God to protect and comfort her. I also ask God to please take her soon so she can be herself again, so she can be with Jesus and the family that has gone before her. But maybe we all still have something to learn from Grandma and that is why she is still here. Soon I know she will share in the eternal bliss we all hope we will come to one day: heaven.
Photography: See our Photographers page.