She's been ill for the last week, requiring oxygen and spinning my mother into action to rush downstate to be by her side. It has happened at least four times before -- the call that indicates her life is quickly coming to an end, the bags quickly packed, the conversations about the do-not-resuscitate order and phoning distant family members and a possible funeral.
And then, somehow by the grace of a miraculously healing body and a soothing hand upon hers and maybe just time, Grandma Alice pulls through. Her vitals return to her normal. She opens her eyes. Her color returns to a pinkish flush.
Seven years into Alzheimer's and retired to a bed in a room at the end of the hall of a county nursing home, my grandmother is not OK. She is taken care of and my mother tends to her lovingly. She files her long, pointed nails. She brushes out Grandma Alice's brilliant silver hair, somehow naturally streaked with black in the last year. She massages scented lotion into her hands. My mother lays out outfits, replaces clothing for the appropriate season, swabs her mouth with a damp sponge, puts lip balm on while my grandmother sleeps. Some of the nurses and aides in the nursing home are wonderful and she still gets cards from ladies in the church she attended for decades.
But Grandma Alice no longer speaks or walks or even shifts around uncomfortably on her pile of starched, bleached pillows. I've learned not to know what to expect when I walk in her door. I know she will not recognize me and I know that it will be enough to just sit beside her and hold her hand across the bars of the hospital bed. For years, I've steeled myself that her death could come at any time, but still there's been the soft vulnerability of thinking she was right there again and again.
This last week, I chose to step back from the worry that she was in the final days or even hours of her life in that nursing home. I got teary once when I told Lil E that Grandma Alice was not well again, but I made the conscious decision to wait. And see. My parents went to be with her, reporting in three or four times a day on her progress, her pulse, her coloring.
Then yesterday, it was time for us to see. My dad, home for a few days to attend some events in our city, said he'd drive Lil E and I downstate to see Grandma Alice. We picked up a sheet cake from Costco, decorated in my grandmother's favorite pink roses. We did not take presents or cards. Being in the room would be enough.
We were there to celebrate her birthday, a nearly unimaginable number of years to walk to this planet and much longer than anyone -- including my grandmother -- thought she would be with us in body. She'd spent days sleeping, but had been eating small portions of strawberry shortcake and pudding my mom fed her. She'd been drinking juice and water and even had a milkshake. Her pulse was up, she was still on oxygen, many questions remained.
But when Lil E and I walked in the room, those things fell away. All I could see was my grandma, and in some moment of complete grace, my grandma saw me.
"Hello, Grandma! It's Jessica." It's what I always say, years away from any expectation that she will or should recognize my face. "This is my boy, Lil E."
He chirped a hello, and I leaned over him onto her, touching her cheek and hair with my hand, kissing her, getting close to the eyes she loved to say Lil E also wears.
Her eyes brightened and she raised her eyebrows and she kissed me back.
"She doesn't have to recognize us or know us," I told Lil E repeatedly yesterday just as I have on our other visits and during our conversations about the great-grandmother he only remembers being in bed. "We just know that she feels the love all around her."
I do believe she did feel the love. My parents wheeled the cake on a cart out into the lounge where wheel-chaired residents slept and yelled and stared blankly at the television, which had the title sequence of "Forrest Gump" on it for hours. They cut and served the white cake with pink roses to the staff and Alzheimer's patients and their families. Lil E did Tae Kwon Do moves to entertain some ladies, and led one woman down to the room to visit my grandmother. She talked to me for fifteen minutes before she realized she didn't know my grandmother at all and, in fact, had no idea she was in the room. But she let Lil E lead her back to the lounge to get another piece of cake to celebrate anyway.
I sat in a chair that was scooched up as close as I could get to Grandma Alice. With a plastic fork and a bubblegum pink party napkin in hand, I fed her every single bite of a sizable piece of her own birthday cake. She ate, slowly and with my assistance, but she ate. Once in a while, she grunted like she wanted to me to know something she was thinking. She let me gently rub her shoulders. She held tight to my hand the whole time.
I told her abbreviated versions of stories. I said that I loved her many times. I smoothed her hair, I wiped her mouth, I adjusted her oxygen tube. She was in and out, as awake as she can be for a minute or two, then glazed over for another minute or two, then back again. I took my time, I felt no rush, I waited for her to look at me again so I could offer her another bite.
When the icing was cleaned from the pink plate and she'd finished two glasses of water and a cranberry juice, after Lil E and I sang "You Are My Sunshine" to her and I'd lowered her bed down a bit, she quickly drifted off to sleep. Her eyes were closed but her fingers were still wrapped around mine.
Her day was over and it was time for us to go. We took turns kissing her forehead. I pressed my cheek to hers, cool and soft against mine.
My Grandma Alice is 102 and somehow, still here. I'm not sure that she'd be happy about that if she was lucid. But in the middle-place where she floats, I like to think the belligerence and anger and intensity and confusion and paranoia that filled her brain at the onset of her diagnosis have slipped away. I pray she is where she is, at peace.
There may not be another birthday celebration for Grandma Alice. But there may be. I got to be with her for a few precious moments yesterday and, as for that future, we will all just wait. And see.
Get to know Grandma Alice: