“Woo-hoo! Get over here, you little fart! Oohhh, I’ve missed you!” I think I heard some form of that greeting more than 100 times in my life. But it’s over. There’s no going back to the place I heard it.
Team-lifting Grandma O’s couch out of the truck with my brother this past Saturday morning, it dawned on me: This very second, right now, exactly — moving grandma into a senior living community — is one of those moments we never anticipate. It was such a poignant thought, if I had tried to verbalize it, I would have burst into tears. Thank God for the task at hand to distract me.
Losing our final biological grandparent to the grips of dementia has been a fairly gradual, sad separation. She hasn’t yet lost her life, but she’s certainly lost IN this life, exhibiting the most common traits of Alzheimer’s Disease and having been so diagnosed. It’s too hard for me to think about, let alone document, the troubling changes in her behavior and how they hurt our close-knit family. I know our experience with this tragedy is not entirely unique and other families’ accounts are well-documented. Suffice it to say, she’s increasingly confused and angry about where she is, why she’s not “at home” — wherever she thinks that might be — and scarcely remembers me, my wife and children, or how we all fit together even when we’re in the same room. Never mind all the moments of the past 40 years we’ve spent together, she’s likely to forget what we talked about in the past 5 minutes.
I wish I had taken better mental notes of my final moments in her house. The last Easter, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, Thanksgiving, Christmas, or even just my last beer with her at the dining table in her tiny kitchen. What was the last joke my cousin Kyle told me there? Who was the last person with whom I shared a long, lingering goodbye? Did Grandma stand at her front door waving as I drove away, and did I beep my car’s horn in reply? I must have. I always did.
None of us knew when or how this time would come, when the landscape of our holidays and lifelong family traditions would change forever. That’s what moving Grandma O out of her house represents to me. To be sure, the deteriorating health and eventual passing of each of my grandparents has been cataclysmic in its own right, triggering shockwaves throughout my extended family, reshaping our traditions and relationships. But this feels like the big one. The last one. And yet she’s still here… another helpless witness to the culture shift. So, rather than a positive transition allowing her to live out the rest of her life with quasi-independence, this feels more like throwing in the towel; the final resignation; failure; loss.
I wish I could close my thoughts with some consoling, insightful takeaway, but that doesn’t fit with my brooding nature. Some things just never get better or less sad to me; not that I’m constantly morose. Yes, I have a large, amazing family, and we’ll continue to gather for holidays and celebrate each others’ major life events. I know traditions inevitably evolve over time, especially with regard to where they are carried out and who’s keeping them going. I accept those things. I don’t struggle so much with change per se as with having it forced upon me.
On second thought, I guess that’s exactly what it means to struggle with change. Without life pushing me in certain directions, I’d no sooner be inclined to change spending Christmas Day at my grandma’s house than I would be to change my last name. Change dictated by ourselves hardly feels like change at all. Aging and diseases rob us of that control. Time marches on, change is inevitable, and I DO have a problem with it.
When I think about Grandma O waking up in her new, unfamiliar place, living amongst and being cared for and visited by unfamiliar faces, I’m afraid I’m destined for that, too. And I’m afraid, going forward, holidays are going to trigger that fear in me as we try to figure out what our new traditions will be.