Those of you who have been following my blog for a while know that I am close to my grandmother, Hindy. When she fell ill and needed help moving into her assisted living facility a few years ago, I drove to Tucson and stayed with her for three months while we got her settled and her health improved. Since then she has had several physical ups and downs (she’s almost 93 after all!), but suddenly I am really having to grapple with the reality of her age.
Recently my grandmother has been spending most of her time in bed. Her hearing has become so bad that she no longer answers her phone, which is difficult for me since I live so for away. What little she can hear doesn’t always make sense to her. With these health updates in mind, my mother and I traveled together to visit her in Tucson. Hindy is often disoriented, and while she was happy to have visitors and has many strong memories, she usually struggled to place us in context. Hindy is from Belgium, and her native languages are Dutch and French. As her mind starts to wander into the depths of dementia, her French is returning. She tends to start her sentences in French, then pauses with a frustrated look on her face and attempts to rephrase her words into English. This experience is new for me, as my grandmother has always had the most astute memory of anyone in my family. She remembered details from vacations many years long passed, who gave her a holiday card (and who didn’t!), and what every one of her beloved family members were up in their busy, disparate lives.
My grandfather died when he was in his early 80s, and was also sharp as a whip at the time. My mom’s parents both died very young. I have no experience with dementia, though I am grateful it took as long as it did to show its tragic/comic face. My grandmother is in relatively good spirits. Her face lights up when we walk into the room. She laughs at herself. She exclaims, “wow I guess I am old!” and there are small daily victories, such as her remembering a stroll we took just the day before. But it also feels like my grandmother is no longer my grandmother. She claimed my father, Rob, was almost 8 years old and was a “little angel” which she accented with a heavy, sarcastic eyeroll. It was funny. But it was also sad. And I suppose that’s a microcosm of life.
I wish I lived closer to my grandmother. My grandparents moved to Tucson just a few months before my family moved to the Bay Area, but they loved the desert and there they stayed. After my grandfather died my grandmother didn’t miss a beat. She continued volunteering at the Tucson Visitor Center, translating for tourists who came in speaking Dutch, Spanish, or French. She was an usher at the local theater. She played bridge and mahjong, and had an active social life. So of course she wanted to stay in Tucson where she had spent the last two wonderful decades of her life. But it’s hard. There is no family in Tucson. Her friends are all either gone or in similar health. She’s at a wonderful facility and has her every need met, but she’s not with those who love her. This is common in our culture, which has the modern family nucleus going…well… nuclear and exploding all across this huge country in search of a better job, climate, quality of life. Family cohesion often gets lost in the fray, and I’m a perfect example. My mom and step-dad now live in southern California (after four years in Australia). My dad and step-mom live in northern California. My twin sister and her family live in Maine. My brother and his wife live in Oregon. My grandmother is in Tucson. And I live in Washington.
Every single one of us is living where we choose, and with good reasons. But I can’t help feeling a deep sadness and longing every time I have to say goodbye to someone at the airport. When you’re a child growing up with your parents and siblings you fully expect the rest of your life to look just the same, but maybe with an added spouse and children of your own. Now our spouses and children take the place of extended family, until they too explode off around the country to colleges, careers, and their own little family units. And there’s nothing inherently wrong with this picture, until someone turns 93 and starts to slip away, and you are lucky to be able to afford time and airfare to go visit once a year.
This is part of the appeal of farm life for me. I can envision a large extended family sharing communal space, in a big house or smaller houses nearby. Land that feeds us and gives everyone a job to do. Hands to help with chores, harvest and child rearing. Laughter. Hugs. Big, boisterous mealtimes. Part of me recognizes this as the dream of a bygone era, but part of me hopes against hope I can make it happen. Living in the same state as most of Andrew’s family is a good start. And parents: know this: if I ever have a house with an extra room, you are welcome there. If you are able bodied I will likely put you to work of some kind, but you will be cared for and loved, and never alone. I know my grandmother chose her lot, and I don’t fault any of her family for honoring her wishes. Forcing someone to move to a new state at the end of her life isn’t always the most ethical choice, and it wasn’t for her. But I’m peering into my future and I don’t like how I feel about it. If there was some way I could get all of my family living together again I would do it in a heartbeat.
For now there is nothing left to do but say goodbye to my grandma with hope and trepidation. I don’t know when I’ll be back, and I don’t know what she’ll be like. I can only hope she keeps her spirits high and meets her dementia with the grace she’s shown through all of her remarkable life’s tribulations. As my mom and I drove through the desert on this drizzly solstice day, the sweet mesquite smell of the damp dirt jolted me back into my childhood. When all we knew was life with each other, and the unbridled joy we felt when grandma enveloped us in her arms.