Friday, September 30, 2011

Happy Birthday, Grandmom!

My dad and his mom, at the library dedicated to her at her church
Today marks my paternal grandmother’s 91st birthday, her first since she went on ahead. 

My dad’s mom, whom I called Grandmom, died on April 19, 2011, after an extended illness, a series of strokes that took her independence, her vitality, her dignity, and finally her life.

When she first got sick and it became evident that she could no longer live alone, even with home health services, my parents moved her from her small hometown in Alabama to an assisted living facility very close to their house in Tennessee.  At the time, Grandmom was sad that she had to leave her house, her town, her church, and her friends, but she trusted that my parents were making decisions in her best interest and that they would be there to take care of her, and they were.

A series of continued strokes pushed Grandmom along her downhill descent cognitively and physically in a relatively short period of time.  We still got brief glimpses of the smart, fiercely loyal woman she was before from time to time, and in those moments it was humbling to see how happy she was to have us visit and how grateful she was for anything that was done for her, especially to my parents.  My mom, her daughter-in-law for 43 years, so like a daughter to her, made sure that Grandmom’s hair and nails were “done,” as Grandmom liked them to be.  She bought new clothes for Grandmom and did her laundry every week, and she read to her and talked to her about current events and family news, both of which Grandmom loved before she got sick.  She decorated Grandmom’s room at the assisted living facility and later, after Grandmom declined even more, in the nursing home.  Mom was the one who noticed if Grandmom’s feet were cold or if the skin on her hands seemed dry and then asked the staff to be sure there were socks on her feet and lotion on her hands during the times we couldn’t be there.  She took care of Grandmom in many ways, and Grandmom and many others of us appreciated it more than words could express.

Dad played a different but equally important role during the last few years of Grandmom’s life.  He was her connection to the past, the one she always recognized and the person for whom she always lit up.  He was her bridge to socialization; he made friends with the other nursing home residents and the staff on her behalf and encouraged her to join in on the social activities scheduled at the nursing home.  He loved to escort her into the main room of the facility for special programs, especially the musical ones.  As usual, he provided kindness and comedic relief to everyone around, and, most importantly, he loved her unconditionally. 

At this time last year, just after Grandmom’s 90th birthday, she took yet another turn for the worse, this time with significant swallowing problems and a cough that just wouldn’t quit.  Her doctor met with my parents and broached the subject of hospice support being provided in addition to the care she was receiving in the nursing home.  It was obvious to anyone who had seen the changes in Grandmom that, while she did have good care, she did not have good quality of life.  She had lost the ability to feed herself and now couldn’t even swallow without choking, which resulted in some of the food or liquid spilling over into her lungs.  It was clear what Grandmom would have decided had she been able to make that kind of decision for herself, and so, with a heavy heart for the loss of the woman she used to be, my dad signed the papers for his mom to begin receiving hospice care. 

The doctor told my parents that Grandmom could possibly recover from the cough but that she wouldn’t improve functionally and that she could be with us for a matter of days, weeks, or even a couple of months.  In the last text message I ever got from my dad, he told me about the hospice decision and expressed how sad he was that it seemed like she didn’t have much longer to live. 

But Grandmom surprised everyone; in fact, she did so more than once over the next six months.  She did recover from the cough, and then she took another turn for the worse on the day after Thanksgiving, this time coming so close to death’s door that the hospice nurse told us to hurry to her bedside to say our goodbyes.  She had the rattley-breathing and was unresponsive, and she hung on by a very thin thread for days before she rallied to her former state.  It wasn’t yet Grandmom’s time to go on ahead. 

And so, as she continued on hospice, we continued to visit her as much as we could, but, due to his time in the hospital and then in the rehab facility, Dad could not visit, as he usually did several times per week.  We told ourselves that Grandmom didn’t notice his absence; certainly she didn’t ask about him, but, with the nature of her own state of confusion, it was impossible for us to tell what she was thinking.  Dad worried so much about her, and he was relieved and grateful whenever we visited her and reported back to him that she was doing as well as could be expected.  It was one of the few things we were able to do for Dad during that time that made him feel a little better, and we were so thankful to have the opportunity to spend extra time with Grandmom and to do something to take away a little of his anxiety. 

By the end of November, Grandmom had healed from the infection in her lungs.  Her health stabilized over the next few weeks, but, devastatingly, Dad’s continued to decline.  It was so completely surreal for us to bring in hospice services for Dad too just before the New Year and then to have him go on ahead shortly thereafter.  How was this happening?  Grandmom had been so sick for so long, and Dad was the picture of health.  It was simply unbelievable to everyone who witnessed it. 

There is much, much more to The Grandmom Story, some from the time between when Dad went on ahead and a few months later when Grandmom did too and a lot more from her Real Life, before she got sick.

A couple of years before Grandmom got sick, she gave me one of the best gifts I’ve ever received:  a collection of several decades’ worth of journals that she had kept of her life.  I had been asking her about details of her life for a long time, trying to get to know her as a person not just a grandmother, and seeking to procure her history to learn from and to share.  She made a decision to entrust those to me, an honor which I do not take lightly.  I told her at the time that I would one day write her story.  She told me she would like that and even bragged to some of her friends about it.  Further down this road of grief, I intend to keep that promise and to share her story, which, by the way, is fascinating and full of surprises and, not surprisingly since she is indeed my dad’s mother, full of perspective and life lessons.  

Grandmom was a woman to admire, a person who touched many lives and who had a far greater impact that she could possibly have realized.  I don’t know if they serve birthday cake where she is now, but I do know that she is at peace and that she is most certainly with her husband (my grandfather) and my dad, and that in and of itself is cause for celebration for her.

                                                     Grandmom loved this song by Willie Nelson.  

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