In January of 2010, it was a brisk sunny Wednesday when she said “I love you.”
I’m not sure when the dementia started or when we noticed, but I had been making weekly visits for the past six months to relieve my dad who was my grandma’s full-time caregiver. He lived with her, but he didn’t have a life outside of her, except playing with Sadie the Doberman and tending to his Sonoma garden. He was usually in the garden when I would arrive, and we rarely exchanged greetings.
The days began to blur; dementia was stealing our lives. Some days were better than others, but better is a relative term when it comes to someone’s mind and body deteriorating and betraying them. I’d be lying if I said I never wished for her death. She was 84, and I feared she might live as long as her mother, my great grandma Helen, who died at 98. It seems like a cruel and unfair sentence; to force someone’s body to stay and only allow their mind to drift out of memory. For me, she was already gone, and I had already said goodbye.
Today seemed typical. As I entered the house, Sadie’s nails clicked along the wood floor bounding over to greet me. The screen door slammed, and her tongue kissed my cheek as I turned to avoid her halitosis. I first learned the word halitosis from grandma. She used it to describe the bad breath of a black lab from my childhood. “Ok, Sadie, that’s enough,” I said pushing her paws down and wiping away the spittle.
The living room was dusty and dark despite the bright white couch with a cheerful floral pattern on which no one ever sat. I walked past the antique buffet and set my laptop bag on the matching dining room table. My grandma had inherited this furniture from great grandma Helen. The antiques seemed out of place in this 1980s ranch style house. Many things seemed out of place. I felt out of place; perhaps grandma did too.
I quietly made my way down the dark hardwood hallway. Grandma loved hardwood floors, but now they seemed too loud, cold, and slippery. Her pale and delicate feet could barely carry her thin body. She refused to use a walker and would simply carry her cane. Someone, I’m not sure who, bought her pink socks with rubber non-slip bottoms.
I carefully opened her bedroom door, and the sun came streaming into the hallway. I could see the dust particles in the stream of sun, almost sparkling. She was awake and lay in her bed. She looked at me blankly. “Good morning, Grandma. It’s time to get up.” It was a chore for her to move the pink flowered bedding off her frail body swimming in pink flannel pajamas. Someone decided pink was her favorite color. In all of my 37 years, I couldn’t recall her wearing pink, ever. I remember her in blue. Blue always matched her eyes and seemed to calm the whiteness of her hair. I never knew her when she had dark brown hair, but I had seen photos. In the old black and white photos, her classic beauty seemed to color the paper allowing me to imagine her blue eyes and clothes.
I helped her move her legs to the edge of the bed and could smell the urine. I began to undress her as if she was a child who didn’t know how to dress. “Lift your arms,” and she complied. After bathing, dressing and convincing her she had to wear adult diapers, I would help her pad down the hall in her rubberized socks in the hopes of convincing her to eat.
“Would you like some eggs?” I offered.
“No, I’m not hungry.”
Ten minutes later, she would ask “Do we have ice cream? I want ice cream.”
“How about a chocolate milkshake?”
“Yes, I like milkshakes.”
Milkshakes were chocolate flavored protein drinks. Similar negotiations would repeat throughout the day, every day. Good days were when she would forget she had already eaten and eat again. Too often, she refused to eat and would only drink milkshakes. I found it difficult to deny her anything she wanted or force her to do things she didn’t want to do. After all, she had lived her life, raised seven children and me; had buried a child, a husband, and a brother. She was entitled to anything she wanted; she deserved to be comfortable and happy.
I could tell it troubled her when she’d ask my name or where I lived, but she never expressed it verbally. I’m not sure if her lack of verbal emotion was the dementia or the Irish. Our family did not hug or give praise. Our typical form of communication was usually anger or sarcasm disguised as humor to hide our general discomfort with each other and the world; unless of course someone had been drinking. Then, they could tell you how wonderful or horrible you were, loudly and for a long time. My grandma was the exception to nearly every unspoken family rule. She never smoked, barely drank, and believed in saying nothing when there was nothing nice to say. She was not a chatty woman.
This lack of affection seemed like an affliction. I once heard a story of a girl who needed glasses, but didn’t know it. When she put on her new glasses, she realized how much better the world was, the sky bluer, the grass greener, everything clearer. What might my world be like with more affection?
At 84, my grandma’s most frequent expressions were anxiety and frustration. She would pace the living room saying things like “he never takes me anywhere” or “I want to go home.” We used to take her to lunch in Downtown Sonoma and go for walks around the historic square, but we stopped because too frequently she would become confused or upset, and want to go home immediately. Once, when she tried to leave the house saying she wanted “go home” I asked where she lived. “38 Mars Street,” she said. It was the San Francisco address she lived in before marrying, before having children, before she was in high school, and before any of us was even an idea. I still drive past Mars Street and wonder what it might’ve looked like when she lived there. Today, the house is a modest pale green. I wonder what color it was when she was just a girl, the same girl she still thought she was, the same girl who just wanted to go home. When she speaks, she sounds like a young girl, playful, innocent, and naive. Perhaps she is that Mars Street girl and no longer the wise and calm woman who raised me.
Today was shaping up to be a blur of negotiations like the others. Occasionally, when she paced, I would pace with her to keep her company. Sometimes she would anxiously ask to go home, who I was, or tell me my sandals were pretty. Today, while pacing in the living room, she abruptly paused, put her cool hand on my arm, looked at me calmly and said in her mature voice “I love you.” I could barely choke out “I love you too” and in an instant she let go and began pacing again. It was the first and last time she ever said those words to me. Perhaps it was out of character for the woman who raised me, but it was even more out of character for the Mars Street Girl. I believe she came back for just those few moments to do something she was never able to do before, to say I love you and goodbye. She died a month later.
Melissa McMahon is a native of San Francisco, where she currently resides with her husband and their family of felines. She believes it is never too cold for ice cream.