Wednesday, November 6, 2013

In her eyes

(Many years ago, I wrote a simple article about my grandmother who suffered from Alzheimer's disease. I had written a poem in Spanish, my native language, but somehow I got it into my head that I wanted to be published in Guideposts, so I wrote the following article in English for that. I never sent it I have no idea why... maybe laziness... I don't know. Probably I didn't think it was good enough. But I thought today was a good day for it to finally see the light, mostly because I want to make sure that if you have a loved one suffering from this disease you realize that they still have much to offer, that you still have a chance to connect with them, to get to know them in a very different way, to enjoy their quirks, their wit, even their crankiness. Under your relative's thin veil of confusion there lies the person he/she was, without inhibitions.)

As my best friend dialed her grandmother’s telephone number, I stood still, amazed that she knew the number by heart. Suddenly, I felt a rush of guilt overflowing me, "How come I don’t know grandma’s phone number?"

I thought we were a very close family. We visited our grandmother every week and she would give my sisters and me a glass of Pepsi and a plate of Social Tea cookies. We talked, we watched television, shared a few memories together and then, off we went to our house until another week had passed and we would do it all over again. I never felt the need to call my grandmother, Tata, on the phone. Whatever it was we had to say, I figured, it could wait until our next visit. So my guilt found a justification and I was relieved.

However, although we may plan visits and trips and rationalizations, we can never fully plan for our unknown future, God does it for us. And His plan for our next step in life took me by surprise: Tata had Alzheimer’s and she could not live alone any longer. She misplaced her keys, she believed that she was being robbed, she argued that she wasn't receiving her retirement checks, she wasn't eating right, dressing right or behaving normally. She was sick.

So my family’s next move was for her to move in with us. "Well", I thought, "at least I will know her phone number now." But it felt strange. Pretty soon I realized that a few cookies and sodas, a few visits and talks did not provide for an understanding of who this woman sleeping in the bed next to mine really was. I did not know her.

What bothered me the most was that it was too late to start getting to know her. She had lost sight of who I was, who my mother was, where she was, what year it was, if she had eaten, if she took a shower, if the dress she had on was hers (and most of the time it was mine). Sometimes she didn't even recognize herself and had conversations with her mirror image! To me, it was funny and endearing, but, at the same time, I sadly realized that it was impossible to get to know someone that didn't even know herself anymore. The more her mind escaped her, the more irrational and erratic she acted.

On the days we went to church, however, she was on her best behavior. A woman raised with strict rules, she knew how to behave in public and she never forgot that. She was extremely ladylike and very well mannered, unlike me, and, she would say, unlike my sisters, too. To her, we had no social skills whatsoever. She knew how to sit properly, how to address someone in public, how to talk to strangers. She valued appearances, so she would put on makeup up to her ears, she would brush her hair, and always, always, pose. She would pose when talking to someone, she would pose for the camera, she would pose when laughing, she would pose when having a headache or when inventing a headache, she would pose when she wanted to dance or even when she thought no one was looking. She had class. I never knew that before.

At home, she would sit in the rocking chair, staring at herself 70 years before. She was a teenager in her eyes. She would ask to see her mother, her deceased sister Maria, her brother Milan, and her father. She wanted to be sure the cows were taken care of and the errands had been run. Then, suddenly, it was 30 years later and she was asking to see her daughters, her husband, and Juanchon, her driver. She wanted to cook dinner, tend to the pets, and make sure the clothes were washed. A very hands-on and caring person, she always wanted to be certain her family was well and taken care of.

When she came back to our reality, she would call me by name but did not recall she was my grandmother; she thought she was my aunt, that my mother was her sister, and that she was in charge of all of us. She was the matron of the house, capable of making decisions, the woman in charge who would kick visitors out if she thought it was too late or that it was the wrong time to visit. Every single time we had to explain her situation and ask our friends to please forgive her. But she was offended if her authority was questioned. In her eyes, she was responsible enough, old enough, intelligent enough, healthy enough to be respected and to be seen as the leader, as the chief. She was tough, and strong, and stern.

Tata was never more real to me than in those last years of her life. In the beginning, I was frustrated and afraid that I wouldn't know how to deal with her because I didn't know her. In the end, I realized that God really does work in unexpected ways. When I thought it was too late to get to know the woman lying in the bed next to mine, God opened a beautiful window through her eyes and I got to meet my grandmother as a child, as a teenager, as a newlywed, as a mother, as a grandmother, and as a friend. God knew it was not too late to get to know the funny, classy, caring and strong woman Tata was, and so He made sure I would meet her when I was old enough to know how important and valuable she really was.

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