ham and cheese on bread

I should be working on a grocery list, but instead I lay in bed staring at the low ceiling and listening to Frazier playing on the tv at my feet.  It’s not quite my bedtime, and my to-do list sprawls off the paper and onto the floor.  The sunny hours of the evening were wasted sitting at a classy bar chasing my emotions away with a fruity cocktail and a salty burger.  The afternoon visit with my grandmother left me sad; a sadness that could only be treated with food.

“She has gotten worse,” my husband said quietly as we walked to our car.  We never know what to expect when we pop in to see her.  The dementia slowly steals more and more away from her, and I have noticed she no longer perks up when she see us.  In two years I’ve watched her slip away slowly, knowing it was only a matter of time before my husband and I could no longer cheer her up.  Now when we walk into the nursing home she stares at us as if we were strangers until I announce “hi grandma!” knowing at least that will still register.

Today her memory slipped in and out – at times she got me confused with my mom, other times she would completely forget what we were talking about or lose track half way through my story.  The tired staff looked busy as they tried to keep the residents content.  And then there was me, thinking I can entertain my grandma and bring her mind some relief.  I kept my stories overly animated and short.  She smiled, as did the other residents sitting within ear shot.

Before I get up to leave I notice the dry erase board on the wall behind her.  It states the weather, the day’s in-house entertainment, and the dinner menu.  “Ham and cheese on bread, fruit salad, potato salad” it reads, and I get a lump in my throat.  My gram used to be the best cook I knew; I ate like a queen whenever I was at her house.  I don’t know if it was so much the ham and cheese that made me sad or the realization that this was it.  She doesn’t enjoy eating anymore, and I know it has nothing to do with the food served her.  I could present her a plate of all of her old favorites and she would look the other way in disgust, forgetting the things that she used to enjoy.

As I lay in bed I cannot get that dry erase board out of my head, or the way she looked at me when I walked in, or the way my husband just knew without me saying, as we drove away, that I was sad.  Life doesn’t prepare one for these things, and my pillowcase fills with tears as I drift off to sleep thinking of my grandmother’s homemade dumplings.

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ham and cheese on bread

beauticians’ lament

When I was young I would spend weeks at a time with my grandma in Wisconsin.  She was a beautician (as it was called back then) and owned her own salon.  The salon was in the same building that housed a gas station, but from inside it looked like any other small town salon in the 80’s.  I was very young, under the age of ten, but a well behaved child and proud to spend time with my grandmother all day at the salon.  She would keep my occupied by sorting perm rods or by letting me sit at the tall front desk where I would pretend to be the receptionist.  After a particularly stressful day for my grandmother I remember her pulling me aside, looking me in the eyes, and telling me to never become a hairstylist.  I heeded her words as if they would keep me from making the biggest career mistake of my life, forgetting for 20 years to ever question what this ultimate secret was that made doing hair the worst job ever.

Around the time that my grandmother’s second husband, a terribly unattractive person, large and with hair that looked severely fake, was gambling his life’s savings away, I was wondering whatever happened to that close relationship my grandmother and I had had.  And I was also contemplating going to cosmetology school.  When her husband died of cancer my grandmothers alcoholism worsened and dementia, diluted with a cheap jug of wine, came sweeping in. She was half in the bag when I announced I would be attending cosmotology school, and I was surprised when she didn’t tell me I was making a big mistake.  Because I have very few memories of my childhood I had assumed that the one about her telling me  to never be a hairstylist was important.  But while considering the career choice I argued the voice in my head, saying it had recently occurred to me that I had put too much stock into the words of someone who routinely made poor choices with men and alcohol.  Looking back, this argument probably came from a place of anger and confusion as I was watching my grandmother waste her life away.  And plus, how could I trust one childhood memory to dictate my future financial stability?

By the time I had finished cosmotology school my grandma’s dementia was ever more noticeable.  She was happy for me and said that it only made sense that I would follow in her footsteps.  A short time later, at my first salon job, I received a phone call from the receptionist at my grandmother’s eye doctor’s office.  It was not an approved phone call but she felt I should know that my grandma had not only driven herself to the office but had also ordered an abnormal amount of contacts.  I hung up, wondering how I would balance work and taking care of my grandmother.

Around the time I started to realize my hair coloring skills were not improving my mother was realizing the state of my grandmother’s mental health.  We were taking turns checking in on here, cleaning up after her drinking binges, and planning to take her keys away.   My mother eventually stepped in as her full time caregiver, and I went back to wondering if I had taken the wrong career path.  With each new hair coloring disaster the anxiety grew.  Every time a client stopped returning my heart sank.  While sitting with my grandmother at the assisted living facility I would confide in her that I didn’t feel like I had the nerves for doing hair.  Despite her infrequent memory she somehow remembered exactly what I was talking about and it was that feeling of not being alone that kept me pushing forward.

Now my grandmother is in a nursing home.  On her good days she remembers that I am a hairstylist.  She no longer tells my husband, like a broken record, about how I would go with her to the salon as a child.  She doesn’t seem to remember that I would sit at the desk with my crayons or that we shared that very fleeting bond over the anxiety of doing hair.  Three years into doing hair and I am still unintentionally turning women’s bangs blue, not getting all of the dye properly washed from the hair, and routinely crying in my car at the end of the day and wondering how I got myself into this.  And it turns out my grandmother was right.  But maybe not for the secret reasons I assumed she knew.  Maybe the reason all along was the anxiety that we both suffered from and the tole it would take on us at work.

beauticians’ lament

moving on

As I slowly unpacked two vintage sets of salt and pepper shakers, a half used roll of paper towel, and enough cheap toilet paper to last me the rest of the year I thought back to how fervently and emotionless I had shoved all of those things into the stained canvas bag just a few hours before.  This was the second time we had moved my grandmother, and neither time had I been prepared for the little moments that would consume me for days, maybe weeks, later.  The first time we moved my grandmother was when she went from her widowed, alcoholic apartment lifestyle to the shiny, brand new assisted living home just down the highway.  Things had become chaoctic shortly after I warned my mother that grandma’s memory seemed to be slipping and her fridge was always close to empty.  My mother’s way of handling stressful and confusing events was more of a survival method than it was a productive one.  Grandma, nude and nearly unresponsive, had peed on the couch in front of us for the second and final time when my mother decided it was time to look into other living options.  When it came time to move her she went with little resistance, and that was mostly due to diversion techniques and mild lying justified by our sole desire to see her safe and at least somewhat clothed.  It was my assigned duty to take her out to eat on the night of the big move while the rest of the family packed up her belongings and hauled several large pieces of furniture into her new studio apartment.  I had bribed her with alcohol to keep her occupied, but days later when sobriety hit her like a ton of bricks she realized the damage that had been done to her wild lifestyle.

This move was a little different.  Alcohol had been prohibited at the assisted living facility, but the dementia hadn’t let go of its grip.  In just over a year her memory had faded enough to let her sit back and watch as we packed up her studio apartment.  This time I was assigned to packing.  My mom studied every article of clothing or decoration like it was a prized antique, when in reality nothing held any value and had only been acquired in the past sober year of my grandmother’s life.  I feverishly tossed things into one of three piles – trash, thrift store, and nursing home.  I moved from closet to cabinet to bathroom, working up a sweat and impressing my mom with my speed.  This wasn’t my first time cleaning through an elderly person’s belongings.  I had learned several years ago to work on a fine balance between emotional attachment and end of life clarity.  My mother was more of a hoarder, believing everything that had ever entered her home held a meaning so dear she would die before having to part with it.  I spent many nights laying in bed, in my immaculately clean and obsessively organized small home, thinking about the job that would be before me when my parents passed away and their belongings would need to be sorted through.  The anxiety gave me an ill feeling.

Walking into my grandmother’s nursing home room for the first time brought tears to my eyes so I set to getting the place set up like she would prefer.  We had spent a lot of time together when I was little.  My mother would let me spend weeks at a time at my grandma’s house when I was young, so when she would now introduce me as “like her daughter” I knew it wasn’t a dementia slip, but rather something closer to a miraculous memory moment.  When I was a junior in high school I moved into my grandmother’s apartment which was located on the second floor of her antique store.  The small three room apartment was set up like a dollhouse, and it was there that I fully absorbed and began my love for decorating.  As I attempted to set up the nursing home room to what I thought she would enjoy, I knew deep down that she when she moved in the following day she would put her touch on the space, the memory loss having not yet completely stolen her magical ability to transform a room.

There wasn’t a strong enough beer to take away the emotions from the day.  I had watched the slippery slope of alcoholism and knew to not count on a few drinks to make me feel any better or any less.  When I arrived home I immediately set out to unpack the canvas bag I had brought from the move.  In the moment it felt slightly awkward to take a few barely used dish cloths and her stock pile of toilet paper, but as I set the items out on my kitchen table it took everything in me to not start to cry.  While I am normally emotional to an almost abnormal level, I am not one for drama.  My husband carried in the lamp that I had fondly eyed while sitting in my grandmother’s apartment on those long afternoons when I was trying to coax her to eat and my husband cleaned up the alcohol mess in the kitchen.  Now the brass lamp sat next to my existing lamp – my husband wondering why we needed another.  I went into the bathroom and  shut the door knowing that tomorrow my grandma’s life would be the next level of different, and I would have to stare at the lamp wondering how she was doing.

When I unpacked the two sets of salt and pepper shakers I noticed one set looked familiar.  While sorting through all of her recently acquired grey tshirts and black elastic waist pants, through the plastic forks and paper plates she turned to after losing her full kitchen, through the simple decor she had tiresly rearranged day after day, I had somehow grabbed the salt and pepper shakers – possibly the only thing she had left from our time living together fifteens years ago.  I looked at them now on my own counter.  The memories of our midnight snacks in her tiny yet fully decorated kitchen, the conversations we had about her crazy flambouyant sister, her cooking us steaks on her George Foreman grill, it all came swirling back as the tiny S & P set sat staring at me.  Nobody ever tells you about this part of life.  All my years of elderly caregiving could not have prepared me for the emotions that were to surface, and as I reached for one of the many rolls of toilet paper piled high outside of my bathroom door I felt a bit of gratitude- gratitude for a grandma who passed on her love of decorating, gratitude for the relationship we shared, gratitude for the year we lived together, and gratitude for finding those salt and pepper shakers in the midst of this day.

moving on

to never forgetting…

Today I found myself recounting our planned trip to The Big Apple, the trip that never happened because of the terrorists.  I can’t help but imagine what that trip would have been like.  Would we have gotten along or merely co-existed as a way to rekindle our grandmother-granddaughter relationship.  We had always been thick as thieves when I was little.  Now looking back I realize that that was only possible because I was unaware of the truth.   As I got older that truth started to leak out a little bit, and I watched my mother try to cover up what was really going on.  When I was old enough to pile up my own issues we became close again.  Our bond then being our problems and the relationship we used to have.  However we lacked the trust that would put us back together again.  And then we canceled our trip.

I moved away and grew up.  I learned how to be respectful.  More importantly, I learned how to move on from my past, heal from my hurts, and get over my issues.  All the while you were back to your “secret” way of dealing with things.  And now look at us.  We have nothing but a few good memories and even those are hard for you to dig up these days.  The relationship we had throughout the past thirty-one years is buried deep down inside with all of your other lost memories.

Alcoholism is not just a secret you have kept all of these years.  It is not a silent killer; it is loud and it pees on the couch and messes up the house and sits around naked in the middle of the day.  It has wrecked you with memory loss and caused numbness in your legs so you cannot walk, and it has robbed you of years that are supposed to be quiet and peaceful and reflective.  But you cannot remember anything now.  You cannot remember that you were drunk yesterday afternoon or that I stopped by to bring you dinner.  We could have taken that trip to New York.  I could have visited you every Thursday and taken you out for antiquing and then dinner.  But we have lost that chance to rekindle our relationship yet again.  It was our last chance.

If I was a better granddaughter maybe I would be at your side.  Maybe I would drop everything to see you through this.  But the emotions are confusing, and on days like this I think that maybe its just better to leave it all as it has become.  Maybe I can just choose to separate the good memories from the bad secret and the sad ending.  Just know that I miss you.  And I will remember it all for the two of us.

to never forgetting…