(Excerpted from After 9/11: One Girl’s Journey Through Darkness to a New Beginning)
Growing up, my grandmother Lucy was my world. We lived in the same building. I was the only grandchild, and she was everything a grandmother should be and more, my warm safe place where unconditional love and joy burst out of our hearts.
However, with age came a slow and painful deterioration of health; first, my grandfather’s, then her own. My grandparents needed more care and assistance than my parents could manage and our options were limited.
In 2005, when I was 16, my grandfather had to be permanently moved into a nursing home, a depressing place in need of much more funding and staffing than it had.
We went every Sunday — the only family, it seemed, that did. It was something I dreaded; seeing all of these people sitting, staring and lonely. They couldn’t feed or clothe themselves, they couldn’t go to the bathroom and they couldn’t go for a walk or turn on the TV or call someone. They sat there confused with nothing to watch, nothing to do. Everything around them was bleak and eerily silent.
Sad Visits to the Nursing Home
Out of loyalty to Grandma, I went on those visits, no matter how upsetting it was.
My grandfather reached out to touch her face, and she kissed his fingers. Grandma tried to feed him like she was on a mission, like somehow making sure that if he ate everything in front of him it was going to help, so we always went around lunchtime. She would also try to get him to talk, a cause that became fruitless.
We took him out for Chinese food across the street, a place with a Lazy Susan that had room for his wheelchair, until he began choking and could no longer eat solid food.
During our visits, my father would play the piano and sing for an hour like he had at my preschool, my grandfather in a wheelchair next to him. While my dad sang, I could read the fear on Grandma’s face like a book. She always told us that she wanted to die before anything like this ever happened to her.
“I’d do anything to help him,” Grandma said through tears.
Turning to my grandfather, she said, “You’ve got to get better so you can come home. Why are you getting worse?”
He just continued playing with his bib. We all knew he wasn’t coming home, and that this would go on for several more years, every Sunday.
Worries About Grandma
While I was in college, Grandma, for the second time in a few years, had to go to the nursing home for rehab due to a broken hip. This time, she was smaller, weaker and more confused.
The day room had a pile of games in the corner, a couple of half-dead plants, and some drawings taped to the beige wall. Everyone was wearing the same red socks with little white lines on the bottom to keep them from slipping, even though they were all immobile.
I hated seeing Grandma in this place, not only because it was painful to watch, but because it was like we had all failed to keep her out of there.
She needed someone to constantly talk to her to keep her mind going. When I went to visit her, I tried to make extra time to talk to the others who were cognizant enough to hold a conversation.
There was a woman named Regina who told me, “I’d like to put you somewhere where there is glitter and glamour.” I usually brought sunflowers or chocolate, for her, for Grandma and for another woman named Eve.
I felt responsible for all of them, and turning my back to get on the elevator on my way out, I felt like I was abandoning them. If it was after 7 p.m., people were in their rooms, in the darkness, screaming and crying “hello” or “help.”
It reminded me of the fear I felt as a child, only it was more horrifying for them because their parents were nowhere to be found, and they didn’t know where they were. Or worse, they knew exactly where they were. All freedom, all ability, all choices, all hope had collapsed.
Stepping into the cool night air, I fell apart. I stood frozen on the curb, ashamed to be outside. I didn’t want my freedom when so many people [inside] didn’t have it. I wished I could break [freedom] off into pieces and hand it out.
Offering a Reassuring Presence
One day I arrived to see that they just left Grandma in the hallway, staring at the back of someone else’s head. Her hair, always coiffed perfectly, was smashed down. She wore no lipstick. Her nails were not done. It made my heart break to see her, to see all of them, lined up in this way, like they were waiting for death.
“Helaina!” she said when she saw me, her usual smile replaced by nervousness she tried to hide. “I don’t know where I am or where I need to go,” she said, a flash of panic on her face.
“It’s okay, you’re in rehab for your hip, but I’m here. We’re going to go up to physical therapy now,” I said.
“I’m so scared. When you leave, I’m all alone,” she said.
This stabbed me like a knife.
“You were always so good at being alone,” I said, squeezing her hand and squatting down to meet her eyes. “Please don’t be scared when I leave. I know that you’re safe. I wouldn’t leave you if you weren’t safe.”
As if reading my mind, she said, “I’m not as tough as I think I am.” Then, like a scared child, she said quietly, “I want to go home.”
I took her up to therapy and promised I would be back before she knew it. I treated every time I saw her like it would be the last time, worried that she might die before I got to say “goodbye.”
I didn’t realize, then, that just getting to say “goodbye” doesn’t come close to being there for someone’s entire life.
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