Grandma’s Pearls: Another Photo, Plus Words

August 7, 2011 § 1 Comment

Grandma (not to be confused with Grandmother) died a few years ago. She’d had Alzheimer’s for a couple of years leading up to her death, and she died in a nursing home adjunct to the retirement center where my grandpa still resides. My grandma and I were never especially close, nowhere near as close as my grandmother and I are, but that doesn’t make her death any less thought-provoking. Alzheimer’s is different in every patient. It’s not always how it is in the Notebook, where she’s a zombie most of the time, but then will revert back to her _____ personality for mere minutes a day. It’s not really like that, not like changing the channel and all the sudden, there she is! The woman who changed your diapers and served you Christmas dinner. I think Grey’s Anatomy had a more accurate portrayal of some cases, where the person is kind of stuck in a certain period of time, a period of the past. Grandma wasn’t like either cases. I didn’t see her as often as my mother did, for reasons I will discuss later, but the times I did see her she just seemed confused, flustered, searching in her mind for the right word or date or name and coming up empty. I heard from the family that she would sometimes revert to a time in the past, but I was never there for those moments. Or at least, I don’t remember witnessing those moments.

I remember the last time I saw her before she died. She had this really uncomfortable-looking wheelchair with a very upright back and a tall headrest. She was being wheeled away, back to her room, after our visit. I remember how thin she was, how little she resembled my grandma. I remember thinking that that might be the last time I saw her, and that I should hug her, because after all that was my grandma, but I didn’t move. She was a stranger to me.

Sometimes I look back and wonder if I should have hugged her that last time, if it would have made a difference to me or to her or to anyone. I call her death “though-provoking” because for me it raised a multitude of questions about self and person-hood. She didn’t know who I was, she didn’t know who my mother was. I’m not even sure she knew who she used to be, in the end. So was that still my grandma? Or did my grandma die years before, when the Alzheimer’s took over?

Sometimes, when I’m in Atlanta, I like to drive past our old house. My family only lived there for a few years, during what I would call “way back when,” in the early to mid nineties. We only lived there for 4 years, but I think we all still consider it our home. We have memories there, we had experiences, we lived every day in that house for years. But is it really “our” house? Can we really call it our home when we haven’t lived there in over 15 years? Can we still reference it with familiarity and affection when we don’t know it anymore, when someone else calls it home now. Someone else rightfully calls it home.

Maybe I should use a different example, a better example, since that house existed before we ever got there, unlike a human body. I don’t know the world before my body existed. When I was in high school, my family started building a log home. No, not a “log cabin” as my wealthier friends used to call it. It was a large house, a decent-sized house, that was carefully planned and well laid out. It was a gorgeous house, even with its half-finished stencilling and its incomplete trim. We built it, and lived in it, and then we moved away. No doubt, we still call it our house. We still claim it, we still recognize it, we still hold it in our hearts. But is it our house? It’s moved on. A new family lives there. It is their house, their home.

When I think about Grandma, I think about houses. Houses house people, just like bodies. Their facades are recognizable, unique, and typically express something about the person or people living inside it. But sometimes the people living in the house change. Not to sound too science fiction, but I think the person inside my grandma changed. I didn’t recognize her, she didn’t recognize me, and whatever memories we shared were replaced by muddled confusion. I didn’t hug her because I felt I could no longer claim her as my own. I don’t just walk inside our old log house, like it’s still mine, like it’s still familiar. And I couldn’t go forward and hug my grandma for the last time because the person who used to live in her body had moved out, moved on. She was gone.

I would argue that a body doesn’t make a person. Obviously, you have to have one to have a person, but people change. I believe (yes, I’m using that word) that a person is at heart unchangeable. In my case, I will always be extraordinarily impatient, have unreasonable expectations, value hard work, and love any and all animals. Those are the things I cannot change about myself, those are innate, inherent, they define me. If I go through some trauma to the head and suddenly I’m patient and I hate cats and I just think people should do what they can to get by, even if it means lazing around and mooching off others, well, that isn’t really me anymore is it? It’s my body, but the person living inside would not be recognized as Alexa Hayes.

So my grandma was gone long before she died. I felt no obligation to go see her beyond making my mother happy, since for me, I didn’t know this person. I recognized her facade, but I could not claim the inhabitant as my relative. People kept saying “but it’s your grandma, you should go see her,” but for me it wasn’t my grandma, not anymore.

This raises the moral question of responsibility, though. Who else would take care of her, if everyone felt how I do? Grandma needed people to take care of her, even if she couldn’t remember their names or their faces. But isn’t that harder on those who loved her? They have to see her, go through that “it’s still her, it’s still her somewhere in there. she’ll remember” series of reassurances, and be continually disappointed when it still isn’t the grandma they knew. It’s just her body. It’s just that house she used to live in. In our society, people seem to get very upset when they hear about an elderly person being left at a nursing home, to await death’s arrival alone. I wouldn’t want to do that, I wouldn’t want anyone to do that, but one should still question who their trying to take care of and why. We were strangers to her, and her to us. I’m not sure it was the best thing to keep putting the people who knew her through that process, when the “real” Grandma, the grandma we knew and recognized, had left that body years ago. And honestly, I’m not sure it’s the best thing for my grandma to keep asking her “don’t you remember? don’t you remember me? what’s my name?” Sometimes I think being told that you’ve forgotten something and trying in vain to remember is worse than never knowing you forgot anything in the first place. It’s harder on them, being told they’ve lost something, pushing them to remember something they never will. Crying when you see them, but they don’t know why since they don’t remember who you are or what they could have done to you to make you cry. But I don’t have Alzheimer’s, and my mother hasn’t died from it, so perhaps my perspective is all wrong.

My mother gave me Grandma’s pearls as a graduation gift. They’re lovely, a wonderful delicate peach color, with a sunburst-style clasp. When I wear them, it’s hard not to notice their weight. I can feel them, resting on my chest, draped over my collarbones, wrapped around the back of my neck. I feel their weight, I touch their smoothness, and I think about what defines a person, what defined my grandma, and what can be lost.


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§ One Response to Grandma’s Pearls: Another Photo, Plus Words

  • Wally Leisering says:

    “Was that still my grandma, or did she die years before when the Alzheimer’s took over?” Since this was my mom we’re talking about, I’ve wondered about this too, especially as I watch other people age and find their focus seem to narrow, specific medical condition or not. Our human brains persist in having an either-or-logic. We struggle with finding an identity for ourselves and, once we create one, use whatever resources at our disposal to refine and hold onto it. Aging and death blur these lines because we don’t seem to be the personalities we’ve defined for ourselves any longer.

    To her specific situation, I think my mom tried to live within tight boundaries for as long as I can remember. As she lost the ability to reason and remember, those boundaries became less important, and she only struggled when she tried to hold onto them, or when others reminded her of things she could no longer pull from memory. Once she was relieved of the responsibility of holding things together, she was able to let go and live fairly quietly in a world that looked small and uncomfortable to us, but which did not bother her or require anything else of her.

    I think you’re right. Houses house people and bodies house people. The Buddhist Steven Batchelor says “your uniqueness is something built up not on a metaphysical basis of some stuff that’s distinct to you, but upon the unrepeatable matrix of circumstances and conditions that has generated your being. There is no “you” who continues into a future life. “You” finish at death, and something else, another being is then born, like a parent giving birth to a child. The process of evolutionary change is not about me, the ego, but about what I can do to improve the spiritual evolutionary advantage of those who come after my death.”

    Houses are not you, but they can and do express how you feel and what you require at a particular point in time. People try to revisit places in their past only to find they have evolved and don’t belong to them anymore. What was important to your body and your developing consciousness changed a lot at birth, when you were 4, 8, 12, and now. Things you worried about as a kid don’t give you a moment’s concern now (well, many of them anyway). Things that consume you now will look different at 50.

    I don’t know about personality traits being inherent. Ingrained sure, but inherent seems to cross into the area of things we can’t know. I believe every day you wake up with your body, your experiences, your current situation, and you try to combine them into something that gives you what you need, shares part of that experience with someone else, and has causes and effects that you will never completely grasp. You and your grandma have that experience with the pearls. Not the same experience, not something frozen in time and committed to memory, but you both took the same object, put it around your neck, and experienced how they felt and came away with an impression. That’s life, repeated in infinite combinations every day. When you’re done, you pass on the chance for more experiences to the next person willing to open their eyes and hearts to what’s in front of them.


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