He wakes with a start in his bedroom, the alarming sounds of his mind and body regaining consciousness causing me to jump in the next room. I eventually hear the inch-scritch-inch-scritch of the walker as the 90-year old makes his way across the room to his bathroom, and many long minutes later he emerges into the kitchen, small tufts of grey hair disheveled and mouth gaping in shock at finding himself in a world that must become less familiar day by day.
I move slowly and carefully in the kitchen, attempting to prepare breakfast the way he likes it without confusing him. Deciding whether I ought to save him the ten-foot walk to the front door for his morning paper or if this disruption to his routine would require so many loud and repeated explanations – It’s already on your chair, Papa; in the den, I brought it in for you – as to outweigh its usefulness. I wash the blueberries and strawberries he requested when I asked what he’d like me to pick up at the grocery store. Grandma seems to think we should have some berries for our cereal, he had said, despite the fact that Grandma is in a hospital bed downtown and we are here, at the senior apartment complex. Setting his place at the spot that’s easiest for him to get to with the walker, and quietly leaving extra napkins because he spills an awful lot since his stroke last year. Checking to see that his 7-day pill organizer is on the table and the milk for his Cheerios is in the expected pitcher, within reach and not too heavy for him.
I make coffee for myself, a necessity after sleeping on the floor in his living room night after night, and its presence here confuses him. I know he no longer drinks it, and that all they had in the house was weak and decaffeinated. He stands in the middle of the kitchen, frozen in place, hands gripping the walker, and stares at his coffee maker for a long while as it glub-glubs my very dark miracle drink into its carafe. I stand by him silently, waiting for him to make the connection. Finally it clicks: You made some coffee? I assure him it is just for me and it’s caffeineated, but that I’ll make him a pot of decaf if he’d like some. No, no, he murmurs, and eventually turns back toward the table to spend the next thirty-five minutes on a bowl of cold cereal with berries.
We are ready to leave the apartment no earlier than eleven o’clock each day. It has taken at least three hours to eat breakfast and get dressed. This gives me time to do their laundry, clean out the refrigerator, water the plants. I walk Papa down to the lobby, get him situated in a chair, and walk to get the car – the one neither of them can drive and that has been promised to relatives. I drive to the main entrance, help him into the passenger seat, and store the walker in the trunk. This ritual is reminiscent of my days with the boys’ strollers and I repeat it several times a day. He’ll use a wheelchair when we get to the hospital, however, because Grandma’s room is many long corridors away from the hospital entrance. He argues that it’s too much for me to push, but in truth it’s no great weight for me and I prefer it to inching our way through the hospital as he uses up all of his strength on one leg of the walk. Knowing it would be impossible for him to push it, I say very little.
My grandfather, who has lived in this town for over 70 years, directs me to the hospital with determination and apparent confidence. It very quickly becomes clear that he has taken me off course and has no idea whatsoever where we are. He stares out the window, and no matter how slowly I drive or what landmarks I point out to him, he cannot grasp where he is. However, he continues to belt out directions. Yes, take a right up here, I know you’ll hit State St. and Keep going down this road, and you’ll see 91 up there. You can take that instead. There is no State St. nor is there a Route 91 where we are, for we have left town and are sailing out into the next village. It is pouring rain and I am hungry; we are nowhere near the hospital. My GPS won’t pick up our location, and my heart sinks. I read Papa the next major landmark sign and he finally says, Aw, shit, I took you all the way to Chicopee? I say nothing, just calmly begin to stop at successive gas stations to find my way there. We pass through three other towns before we finally arrive, because my grandfather continually insists that what I am doing is wrong and he does know the way now. We spend an hour and a half getting to a medical center that is in the town where he lives. He seems embarrassed but perhaps more befuddled than anything. Upon our arrival, I tell my grandmother that we had some stops to make along the way. You know, that medicine we had to pick up, I tell her. And you were almost out of toilet paper.
Neither of my grandparents could live alone, but somehow they muddle through together. They’re a matched set. I’m not sure how a blind woman could make this living situation work for him, but she does. However, she’s been gone for a few weeks now, and even if she gets to a rehabilitation program this week she’ll be gone for many more weeks. And when she’s out, will she be strong enough to keep this up, this independent living situation?
As I prepare emotionally to leave on the fifth day, I don’t know the answers to their future. I have a sense that it’s not going to be especially long, nor overly comfortable for anyone, but I don’t know what should be done and how any of us could begin to predict what will happen next. All I know is that these days – these slow moving, getting lost, rooted in routine, reliant on each other days – are important. When I look back on all these years with my grandparents, I’ll have been fortunate to be by their sides during this time, too.
I am overwhelmed with this dawning sense that these final chapters of their lives are just as important as all that came before them. As a culture we mark a baby’s entrance into this world as a beautiful event worthy of great celebration and ritual, we give gifts and read entire books about it – but we fear and run from the final days, months, and even years as if somehow we’ll get swept into the curtains and be taken away, too, when they finally close.
Just as I treasure memories of my grandfather gathered throughout my entire life, I will always hold onto the moments we had together in this past week. I will not regret seeing him confused and befuddled, moving slowly, spilling his food, or forgetting my name, because this is as much a part of his life as sitting in the audience during my school plays, driving us to Mountain Park, and swimming in the Atlantic with us on Cape Cod.
When I said good-bye to my grandfather yesterday, he held me tight and told me how much he loved me and what good care I’d taken of him and my grandmother. He wiped his eyes behind his glasses as he said he wished for me to stay longer but knew I had to get back to my family. I told him honestly that I’d loved every minute of it and wouldn’t trade it for anything. And then I leaned in close to him and whispered – Except maybe Chicopee – and we began to laugh through our tears.
I left the hospital room and headed out to the airport with the sound of his guffaws behind me. It’s true: I wouldn’t have missed this for the world.