Stolen memories

My grandmother passed away yesterday evening.

My mom called me at 9:25pm. She got to be with her as she passed, brushing her hair and kissing her forehead. I know that was very important to my mom.

In truth though, my grandma – the one who used to bake the most incredible cherry pie and who used to beat us all at Wheel of Fortune – that grandma has been gone for a very long time. Dementia took her from us and left in her place a woman we didn’t know. Who didn’t know us. Who was obstinate and suspicious. Who hit nurses and accused my grandfather of trying to hurt her.

It is always painful to lose a loved one. It is especially painful to watch her slowly slip away.

My grandmother’s battle with dementia first came to my attention a couple of years ago. My mother had been mentioning my grandmother’s declining health more and more. Finally, I gave her a call at the full time care facility she was living in (my grandmother’s health had deteriorated too far for my fragile grandfather to care for her alone). I starkly remember sitting on my bedroom floor. It was afternoon; bright sunlight streamed into my room. The conversation began normal enough. She asked me about my move to Dallas and about my job. She asked about my relationship (even got Luffy’s name right!). She doesn’t sound so bad, I thought to myself. 

But as our conversation continued, I began to become more concerned. Then she asked me a simple question – when was I going to take up piano again? She said she knew I must be missing it. That question changed my mind completely. You see, I hadn’t taken a piano lesson in well over 15 years. I had danced all through grade school and college. If she referred to any hobby, why wouldn’t it be dance? When I related that to my mom, she said that dementia patients often lose short- to mid-term memories first and that they refer to events that happened long ago as that is their foundation. She was much more likely to remember me as the seven-year-old piano student than the dancing teenager. All those recitals and costumes and performances, all those words of encouragement and support – all those memories – gone. It was in that moment that I began to say good-bye to my grandmother.

I’ve seen her a few times since that conversation. A Christmas or two. My wedding. My brother’s college graduation. Each time becoming more and more challenging. An off-duty nurse she responded to particularly well made each trip with her. Michelle became second family to us as she tried to keep my grandmother in check. My grandmother had always been stubborn (that passionate Italian blood), but now she was downright inflexible.

The last time I saw her was Thanksgiving. She seemed to be doing well, despite her displeasure with being remanded (in her mind) to the care facility. Before lunch, she interrogated me about my marriage; made sure that I was happy and well-cared for. I assured her that I was. It was a short day for her, as she tired easily. Before she left, I gave her a hug and a kiss and told her I loved her. She gave Luffy a kiss and told him that he’d better be good to me. Then we packed her into her car and waved her off, promising to see her soon.

Last week, I heard from my mom. My grandmother was in the hospital again. A UTI had gone unnoticed and was wreaking havoc on my weak grandmother. On top of that, her moments of coherence were becoming shorter and shorter. By Wednesday, they had moved her into the ICU. By Thursday, my mom called me in tears. Grandmother was refusing to eat, refusing to be touched, refusing to be cared for. She didn’t recognize my mother or grandfather. She was rigid to the point of hurting herself. The doctors suggested hospice care, hoping that in a soothing environment, she would make the decision to eat.

She was moved to hospice on Friday. All reports were that she was responding well, calming down. Saturday she suffered a seizure and spent the evening struggling to breathe. When I talked to my mom, she sounded hopeful. In hindsight, I think she was just happy that my grandmother had relaxed enough to allow my mom to give her kisses and comfort her. In the end, she passed away with my mother at her side.

As you might know, I was very excited yesterday. It seems so unfair that, if we were successful, my grandma will never know. She’ll never meet our little Chinese-American babies. After we found out, Luffy told me that “one life ends and another begins.” I took comfort in that thought. My grandma will never meet our little baby in this life, but perhaps she passed him on her way.