Story time with Grandpa. No photos today.
Today’s blog isn’t about my business or anything to do with photography. I’m not even sure if I’ll post it… I just want to write about my experience today and I don’t have Microsoft Word on my computer, so I’m writing it here. I’ll decide at the end if I will share it.
My Grandmother had Alzheimer’s Disease for 15 years. My Grandfather kept her in his home and tended to her every single day of her life throughout her disease. As time went on and he weakened and she worsened, he hired help – but still kept her at home. He was never going to let anyone else be responsible for her. He is the most honorable man I know.
As her disease progressed Grandpa needed more help. Enter – her daughters. My Mother and three of her sisters who lived near by at the time stepped in to take Grandma every weekend to give Grandpa a little break time. When it was my Mother’s weekend I often stuck around to help. She was the most gentle, loving and beautiful person you could ever have met. Even as Alzheimer’s ate away at her memory she stayed gentle, sweet and loving. It was easy to help care for someone who was just a darling woman all of the time.
She left us in December of 2005. Nearly 9 years ago already. She was my Grandfathers whole world. Up until incredibly recently, any time he spoke of her, he cried. It’s not that he doesn’t cry for her anymore, it’s just that now at 91, he’s deteriorating and is more and more confused every day.
A while ago it dawned on me that I didn’t know very much about my Grandfather. We spent so many years dotting over our grandmother, adoring her, caring for her, loving her… that we had less and less time to enjoy him. Along with this realization I decided that he was old – and if he died and I still didn’t know much about him, I would regret it. I knew there were many stories to be told by this man, who was the youngest of 14 children. I knew there were many stories to be told by this man, who married a woman with 9 children. Growing up I heard little things here and there but nothing I could really remember. I immediately felt ashamed of myself and decided I would start having lunch with him regularly.
At first I went to see him weekly. This slowly trailed off as I got busier and busier. Later I picked it back up… and it trailed off again. I picked it back up at least one more time before I let it trail off again. During this time I learned about all of his siblings, and all of their children. I learned about his parents and how they died. I learned about how he spent most Christmas’s, especially during the Great Depression. I learned about every job he ever had and why he left each one. I learned about why he came to California from Vermont, and where he met Grandma… I wish I recorded his stories… because even as I search to remember them now, I don’t have all the details.
The last time that my visits trailed off it was because he was becoming more difficult with everyone around him. He’s a grumpy old fart… he really is. I think he’s funny – but that’s because I don’t have to deal with him every day… he really can be quite the pistol. He was becoming more difficult because he was becoming more frail. He fell in the shower and with that, lost the ability to bathe himself… and I imagine that along with that he lost his dignity. He ended up in the hospital shortly after this fall and became very depressed. He told my Mother once that he is sad every day that he still wakes up. He wants to just close his eyes and not wake up. He’s ready to move on… yet he’s terrified of the process. As this worsened and his confusion grew, I stopped being able to have conversations with him. After his stay in the hospital I thought I’d start reading him the paper. My heart broke for this 90 year old man who can barely see and barely hear. I thought about what his days must be like while he waits to die. He sits in a chair all day long with no one to talk to and nothing to do. His caretakers are wonderful. They help him from his chair to his table for his meals and back to his chair again… they help him to bed at night. When he wakes up all hours of the night scared, they are there with him and calm him down. But what kind of life is that? He can’t read, he can’t watch TV, he can’t listen to the radio… he just sits.
He always loved reading the paper. He read it every day of his life. So I thought I’d take over that job for him at least once a week. I started to do this, but I went one day and he told me he didn’t want me to read because he couldn’t stay awake. I let my visits trail off again because of that one day. One silly moment where he was too tired gave me the license to stop coming. I think about that now and kick myself for it. How stupid.
Last week I went to see him because I heard he was not feeling well and my Mother couldn’t get to him as quickly as I could. The next day I took him to his doctors appointment, at which we found out he was fine. He had actually put on weight… weighing in at a very hefty 117 pounds. His blood sugar levels were perfect and his blood pressure had actually improved with his 9 pound weight gain. Apparently he decided it was a good idea to start eating two pies a week and having sweet snacks all night long. I mean – hey… the man is 91 now and has nothing really to enjoy daily. Let him have his sweets right? Except for that it gives him horrible stomach pain and my Mother gets phone calls at 4am because he thinks he’s dying.
After taking him to the doctor and bringing him back home, I kissed his scruffy cheek and held his hand to say goodbye for the day. He began to cry uncontrollably. I asked him why he was crying and he said, “Oh. Just emotions.” I hugged him as his caretaker brought him tissues. As I was leaving I turned around to see him still crying just as hard and went back to his side and held his hand. I hugged him again and he said “You’re just so great. You’re great. Thank you.” I felt like a complete asshole because I hadn’t even done anything. What made me so great? I had stopped coming to see him and told myself it was ok because I couldn’t really do anything for him. What a jerk. All he needs is someone who WANTS to be there. It doesn’t have to be all day and it doesn’t have to be every day… but imagine your last years being the way his have been. Imagine being 90-91 years old, not being able to see or hear, and only having people around who are paid to be there. My Mom and my aunts go and tend to his needs whenever they are needed – but no one really ever just sits and spends time with him. I get it – obviously. It’s hard. But it’s even harder for him to be alone.
I spoke to my Mom as I left his house and we talked about how miserable and sad that must be. I promised that I would start spending Monday’s reading to him. I called my sister and she decided she will spend Fridays reading to him.
Today was the first Monday and I showed up with lunch and a book called “Tuesday’s with Morrie.” My roommate suggested the book when I told him the situation.
When I arrived with my lunch and the book, he looked at me confused. I went to his side to say hello so that he could see my face and process who I was. He said “What happened?” I said, “Nothing happened Grandpa. I just came to have lunch with you.”
He lit up with a smile and said, “Oh! Well that’s great.” I told him that I thought I’d read to him today. He smiled some more and said, “Well great! That’s great.”
I heated up my lunch and sat down next to him. He began to tell me something but couldn’t connect all of his words. He said, “I’ve been wondering about…. I know we’re in Vermont.” This shocked me. I knew he was suffering from dementia in his old age, but even just last week when I saw him he knew where he was. He had trouble finding his words and remembering what he ate and when he saw me last (the day before), but he knew where he was. I told him that we were in California and he crunched his eyebrows at me and stared for a minute. He took another bite of food and then pointed at the portrait hanging above his fireplace of my Grandmother.
He said, “Is that picture from Vermont?”
I said, “No Grandpa. That’s Grandma. That’s Evelyn.”
He replied, shocked, “Oh! Well… gosh. I’m just so… Hmph.” I asked him if he was feeling confused and he said yes, and just went back to his food.
Shortly thereafter he asked the name of the book again. I told him. I told him it was about an old man and he smiled. He picked it up at one point and looked at it, and put it back down.
We both continued to eat, and again he inquired about the book. “What’s our book called again?” I told him again and he said, “When do we start reading our book?” This warmed my heart so I scarfed down my lunch and opened it up to read it.
He scooted closer to me in his chair at the table so that he could be closer to me and talk to me, even though he couldn’t understand much of what I said and couldn’t mutter much back himself. I wasn’t sure how reading the book would pan out because he has such a hard time hearing me and understanding what’s going on… but I began anyway.
The entire time I read to him he stared intently at me. He’d look back at his food a few times but mostly he just watched me read. He never asked me to repeat, to slow down, or to stop. It was as if he was hanging on every word… as if he knew exactly what I was reading to him. I don’t know if that’s true – it’s probably not. But I got to see the look on his face of enjoyment today and I haven’t seen that in a very long time.
I asked several times if he wanted to sit in his recliner, but he did not want to leave the table. At one point his caretaker took him to the bathroom, and as he scooted his walker around the corner to come back – he looked over and saw me and said out loud, “Ok. She’s still here.” I think he thought I would leave while he was in the bathroom.
He sat back down at the table next to me and I continued to read. The fact that he didn’t want to go to his recliner was surprising me as time passed. This is a man who will not sit anywhere but his recliner for more than 30 minutes. The only other place he will sit, is at the table. Over the Holiday’s last year, we even had to have someone go pick up his recliner and bring it to dinner so that he could be comfortable.
After about 2 hours of sitting at the table he started to doze off. I asked again if he’d like to go to his chair. He said, “If I go there, I will fall asleep.”
I replied, “Well you’re falling asleep anyway.”
“No…” He said.
“Yes… you’re dozing off. You’re eyes were just closed.”
He looked at me puzzled and said, “But if I go there I will fall right to sleep.”
I told him that it was ok for him to take a nap. That he needed to rest and that I would read to him again next week. He said ok, and went to his chair and within seconds was asleep.
My heart is filled with a lot of emotions after spending that time with him and reading the book I chose to read. I read a part about Morrie taking 40 minutes to eat his lunch, with his hand shaking as he tried to bring his fork to his mouth… while my Grandfather was eating his lunch over 40 minutes in, with his hand shaking as he tried to take his fork to his mouth. It was like I was telling the story of my Grandfather sitting in front of me. Except Morrie’s mind hasn’t gone yet at this point in the book, and he has people calling him and showing up regularly to visit with him. My grandpa really doesn’t have any visitors except my Mom and Aunts when they need to take care of his expenses or health issues.
My Mom has decided she’s going to take more time to visit with him going forward. My sister is going to read to him over lunch on Friday’s. So hopefully this brightens the end of his life a little.
I’ve decided I will post this blog. A friend of mine read my Facebook post today and thanked me for it. He said he is struggling watching his grandfather deteriorate too, and it made him feel like he’s not alone. So maybe reading this will help someone else… and maybe it will inspire others to take time out of their lives to help enhance the life of another… you’d be surprised at how much that intention will enrich YOUR life. Seeing my Grandfather smile today, and watching him ENJOY something has filled my heart in a way I didn’t know it would. I wish I could read to him every day… but more than that I wish he had someone to read to him every day.