It is important to begin by stating that today is March 27, 2012. Today is also Tuesday. It was my intention to be making this journey on Wednesday, but I presently find myself exhausted from lack of sleep and a far too early “screaming at” by my alarm clock, hurling through the air in a giant, shiny dart.
I was just “home” visiting my family in California after X-mas last year, and it has thus been less than 3 months since I was there with them. To visit so frequently is very unusual as I live in Maryland and I generally find that I don’t have the financial means by which to visit with any flavor of regularity. Today I find myself rushing back “home” on a vacation I don’t want to take.
I am flying home to say goodbye to my grandfather, goodbye to “Grapes.”
As I see him so irregularly, I notice the changes in his appearance with each visit I make. There have times over the years when I did not make it home for more than a year, so the visual differences and physical changes that my family and friends go through seem dramatic to me. To those of my family that live nearby and see each other often, the new gray hairs and fresh wrinkles that display the ripening of our bodies aren’t as noticeable. They slowly and gradually appear, with no neon advertisements announcing their arrival unless the owner creates such a ruckus. Things are very different for me when I come home though.
I witness the worry on my mothers face as she strains under the pressure of caring for her aging parents who are toddler-like once again. I can hear the stress in her voice, and she wears her frustration on the outside like a carnival mask. She is, when dealing with her dementia ridden mother (my “Granny”), a different lady. Over the last couple of years my grandparents have rapidly required more and more assistance, for the last six to eight months, they really should have had round the clock care. My mother was, after years of beating her drum to the song “move away from the snow,” finally successful last fall in convincing my grandparents that they needed to move. In all actuality it was “Grapes” who one day out of nowhere exclaimed, “I can’t spend another winter up here.” So, after spending a couple months of discussing it “Granny” seven or eight times a day as if it were the first time, they moved. My mother and her husband found a senior living community in the foothills of the Sierra’s, away from the heavy winter snows of Lake Tahoe and the family packed “Granny and Grapes” and they moved to their new home just three or four minutes from my mother.
I mentioned that I just recently visited, and I do so to explain that this was my first time seeing my grandparents outside of their house in Lake Tahoe in more than 30 years. My mother had described their new living situation to me and I understood all too well that they now required at least the level of assistance that this facility provided but I wasn’t really prepared for the scene that unfolded when I crossed the threshold for the first time. My grandfather is a shadow of the man I remember, his cheeks now shallow as his appetite has become less and less lately, and while I can clearly visualize standing in the street in front of the house with him throwing a baseball back and forth, I can hardly believe this is the same man.
“Granny” sees my mother enter the two bedroom apartment and notices there are other people in tow (my younger sister and I). I witness a flash of confusion envelope my grandmothers face, but it is slowly and obviously replaced by her natural desire to be hospitable. I’ve spoken to “Granny” on the phone repeatedly and I often have to tell her who I am, who’s child I am, and answer the same questions five or six times during the conversation. I thought I was ready for what happened next, but I wasn’t. As her desire to be polite surfaced, “Granny” looked at me following my mother into the apartment and feeling the familiarity of my mother, she deduced correctly that I am related to her and exclaimed “Oh! How nice to be visited by one of my handsome relatives.” She hasn’t a clue who I am.
Before we even entered the building I could sense that my mother is on edge, and when we walked through the apartment door, it was like someone spilled “anxiety paint” all over my mom’s body. Her brow furled as she walked briskly around the apartment taking care of the tasks that her parents can no longer remember to do themselves, and she does it all alone. Her brothers are of no assistance in this effort. My mother attends to her tasks of gathering the dirty laundry, sorting mail, separating and distributing medications… I am sitting across the living room from my grandmother, who is looking out the window, holding a cup of coffee in her left arm which is in a sling. Her right hand is swollen and black, broken from the same fall just two days previous that placed her arm in the sling… the cast she is supposed to be wearing is on the table next to the coffee she claims to be “drinking,” although it has sat so long it is now the same temperature as the air in the room. I’m told she’s wearing the same nightgown that she’s been wearing all week. I spoke calmly and repeatedly to “Granny,” inviting her to get dressed and then I would assist her in putting her cast on.
“The one right there on the table,” I respond as I point at the item.
“What’s that for?”
“My hands are fine.”
“Look down, the one that’s all black… it’s not supposed to be. You should be wearing your cast.”
“Yes sir, Doctor,” she responds with the look she’s made my entire life when she makes a smart-ass comment and I feel for a second like I’ve gotten somewhere, but as fast as the look of recognition appeared, it vanished.
Later, when my mother has done her parents weekly laundry, she notices that “Grapes” had 7 pairs of drawers, 3 pairs of pants, 7 pairs of socks and 7 t-shirts. A reasonable expectation for a week’s worth of dirty clothes. “Granny” has one dirty nightgown.
“Granny” is already gone, replaced by some strange replica that looks and walks like “Granny”, but doesn’t talk anything like her… doesn’t know like she knew.
This story isn’t about “Granny” though, it’s about “Grapes.”
I mentioned how skinny he looked to me when I saw him after Christmas, and when my mother called and told me that he had lost 20 pounds in the last 6 weeks I had a good idea where this story was leading. After a week or two of doctor appointments and lab visits, we’ve learned he has stomach cancer. He’s unable to eat because his stomach is filled with the diseased growth so he’s losing weight faster than I could have ever imagined. As it was relayed to me, this is how the appointment with the doctor went when he learned of the disease that was eating him away.
The doctor relays that “The tests came back inconclusive but we can tell by the way this looks and is acting that it is indeed cancer.”
“Grapes,” 89 years old, nods his understanding almost imperceptibly. My mother is in attendance as she’s the caregiver for “Grapes” and she asks the doctor what the next step is…
“Well you have an appointment with the specialist next week and he’s probably going to want to use a scope and run it down your throat into your stomach to take a peek at this thing…”
“Grapes” begins to slowly move his head back and forth.
“He’s probably going to want to see it from the other side too so he’ll run a colonoscopy as well. The tumor can be removed by the healing process is long…”
“Grapes” moves his head from left to right and back again with more vigor.
The doctor recognizes that “Grapes” doesn’t want any part of any of this and nods his recognition as he continues to talk, he has to get this all out there.
Sitting in Maryland, I am waiting anxiously for the test results from today. I know “Grapes” isn’t doing well and I am going nuts waiting. These are the times when living so far away from my family is the worst.
When my mother finally calls me she relays the conversation to me and continues by explaining that “Grapes” has signed a DNR order, has only authorized medication for his own comfort, and refused to be fed by a tube.
He’s has decided that he’s at the end of his journey. He lives in an apartment that isn’t his home with a stranger that looks like the love of his life, looks like his bride of 65 years, but she just isn’t that person anymore.
I am clearly overcome with moments of sadness and expected that I would be continuously bawling as I came to grips with what is happening, but that’s just not the case. “Grapes” has had a wonderful life filled with love, laughter, family and friends. He found true love, bathed in it for nearly seven decades, and now that it’s gone his pain is too overwhelming. I don’t know if it’s the pain of his lost love or just physical pain. What I do know is that he’s exhausted. He’s unable to eat and he’s tired. I know that he’s had a wonderful life that he’s not tired of living, but he’s trudged on like a trooper through years of health problems… I believe he’s tired of dying, and I understand. Saying goodbye is never easy, but his family can take some consolation in the fact that we are afforded the opportunity to do so. He made the decision to not be treated and all but told us “Ok, call me!”
Hurling through the air at 600miles per hour or so, I am en route as I write this to see him one last time. If I don’t make it, I am comfortable knowing that I’ve said all I needed to say to him, and he knows he’s loved.
My siblings have explained to me how he doesn’t look anything like “Grapes” anymore… so frail and shallow looking, a heap of bones with a blanket of skin laying over it has replaced my grandfathers body. I’m not sure that’s the last memory I want of my grandfather. I really hope I make it home in time.
I’m terrified that I just might.