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Sunday, February 22, 2015

Perception is Everything.

I hadn't been to the nursing home that housed my great-grandfather, Pappy, since I was a small child. As I left his daughter and my grandma there today, I noted just how much smaller it seems. Once cavernous rooms and long corridors have, through the magic of time and perspective, become cramped and confining. This place that once evoked feelings of freedom and exploration now seems more warehouse, hospital, prison, waiting room.

I often credit that nursing home with teaching me the patience that has come in so handy as a wife, mom, friend, and teacher. Visits there meant visiting not just Pappy, but a variety of other personalities as well. While Grandma gave her dad a haircut and a shave, Dorothy and I played ball. She dropped her arm down next to the wheel of her chair and rolled her soft, pink therapy ball to me. Sometimes, its trajectory was so far off that I would dutifully run down the corridor and fetch it before rolling it back to her. We played until I wore Dorothy out, and then I would visit Alice, who always had perfume sample bottles to share. I sprayed some of each on in turn, asking how I smelled. "Beautiful," she would respond, but I can only imagine the olfactory assault that resulted from the combination of inexpensive perfumes. Another dear woman whose name I can no longer recall saved her paper medicine cups for me. That was all she had to give, but she wanted to share something with the little girl who sat and listened to her stories. To me, the cups were amazing. I used them to "feed" my dolls, as course markers for Hot Wheels races, and for tower-stacking. Of course I fondly remember these kind people and the small gifts they gave me, but the greatest gift they bestowed was the ability to patiently listen to someone else talk about his or her experiences and learn from them. Their stories were incredible! Maybe, just maybe, my love of storytelling began in that place! Thank you, Dorothy, Alice, and others. While I brought a little light into your life with my visits, you gave me so much more.

Pappy didn't feel well enough to play ball or save trinkets as he approached the century mark, but he never failed to express his love for me. His charge to "be a good girl" resonates with me still. I sometimes wonder what Pappy would think of me now, or how upset he'd be to learn that my mom and I don't talk. My memories of Pappy are few. I know we ate chicken pot pies together when we both lived with Grandma, and I remember feeling sad when he needed to move into the nursing home. In my mind, I can still feel his rough whiskers scratching my cheek where he kissed me. I could never decide whether it tickled or hurt. I guess it was a bit of both, but it was sweet. He was a wonderful man who stuck by his family through war, economic depression, another war, and the years of ups and downs that followed. He was firm yet gentle, and the love he gave my grandma taught her to unconditionally love each successive generation. Grandma has always made me feel loved and secure, and my visit with her today was largely about me trying to return the sentiment. When grandma told me that she was "close to 100 years old" and that it was "time for [her] to go," I assured her that though I know she is tired, she will always be with me. I have always made sure that grandma knows what she means to me, but today, I wanted to make sure that I said it all again. What passed between us is private, but I will say that my heart could burst from the amount of love and admiration shared in that small room.

The tangible artifacts that represent my grandmother's life now fit on the top of a small dresser. Clumsily arranged photographs and a couple of knick-knacks serve to remind Grandma of her family during the hours when we cannot be with her. They aren't her favorite photos or knick-knacks, but this is just an example of how my uncle doesn't know his own mother as well as I do - because I have always enjoyed speaking with her and listening in a way he has not. I would have known which items should decorate her new home, but no one asked. She was moved last week while I was sick, and her apartment has since been ransacked by greedy relatives more focused on things than on sentiment. I think that grandmothers share parts of themselves with granddaughters in a unique way that no one outside that relationship will ever understand. It was this way with both of my grandmothers, but perhaps it was also because I saw them as wonderfully interesting people and got to know them as such that they have meant so much to me. I hope that I have grandchildren one day, with whom I can share my stories and the stories of my ancestors. Maybe they will visit me in a nursing home one day, but I admit that the idea of living in one depresses me. 

Grandma shares her 10' by 10' room with another woman. Two antiquated hospital beds, powered by hand-crank, anchor each woman's "living space" and leave little space between for living. That point might be moot, since my Grandma and many of her neighbors are not so much living as they are surviving. My grandmother told me that she was "bored," "didn't have a reason to know what day it was," and that she was "exhausted". She is preparing herself for the inevitable, and she is also preparing me. She wants me to be okay with her leaving, and though I don't want that day to come, today, I had to make her feel that it is okay to leave when she is ready. Being a grown-up sucks sometimes. 

In retrospect, I can see that the life and energy I brought on my visits as a child was in stark contrast to the death that hung over the nursing home like a winter coat. Most families are pretty lousy when it comes to visiting regularly. They're busy, and visiting is depressing. As a little girl, I didn't see the nursing home that warehoused the elderly in their final years; I saw a wonderland where I was free to roam the hallways without fear of being kidnapped. I had friends everywhere I turned, and while they were happy to see me, I was excited to hear their stories about a time before television, a time before Barbies for Christmas, and a time when school meant one room, heated by furnace, where each grade sat on a different row and students ate leftovers for lunch out of pails. 

I am desperately trying to see the nursing home in that light again. I want to replace the sorrow I feel for my Grandma being in that place with contentment. Though she shared the sentiments I listed earlier, she also said that she "has never been around nicer people" and that the "nurses here are the best." She said she has everything she needs. But I cannot deny that it is cruel that we warehouse our elderly. There are reasons, of course. Many of our homes are ill-equipped to provide a safe environment, and most nonagenarians require nursing care around the clock. We want them to be secure, but how do we reconcile the fact that they spend their last days separated from the very family that loved them enough to place them in a care facility? 

As it turns out, Grandma has already shown me the way: she loved her father, my Pappy, will all her heart. She reached the point where she could no longer take care of him. She moved him into the very same nursing home where she herself now resides. Grandma knows that we love her, and I'm sure she also knows that I am struggling with the same feelings that she grappled with almost four decades ago. So I will follow her example. While I won't offer her a shave when I visit, I will offer her all the love and patience that I have. I will point out the positives about her new home and encourage her to roam the hallways and share her stories with any who will listen.

My grandma, Mary, among wildflowers c. late 1930s to early 1940s.

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