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Friday, April 5, 2013

Hurricane Dementia

This is my A.P.  Well, this is one of my favorite pictures of my A.P.  I don't think she knew I was taking it, which makes me love it all the more.  She's my mom's sister. Since my dad's an only child, that makes A.P. my only aunt. I'm not gonna lie, she's pretty good at being an aunt. She also bore the brunt of Hurricane Dementia, which slammed into this family with a vengeance. And looking back now, I truly understand how awful that was.  I'm glad she was here for them, and I'm glad I could be here for her.  Maybe that's the best part about family.  The being there for each other, even if there's nothing to do but offer a hug and a pair of open ears.  And to hope that helps.

Nannie died in December.  Before that we spent five months watching her terrifying decline in a rest home, and before that we had a sad couple of years watching her slowly disappear.  During the last year or so I recorded our conversations together when I could, and looking back I can honestly say I hadn't heard her make much sense in months.  The very last thing she said to me, when I knew she knew me, was, "Katie, you come here so I can kick you in the butt!"  I'm still not sure exactly what I did, or what year I did it in, but at some point in my life I must've irked her something awful.  I'm pretty sure she thought she was on the farm that day, so I must've been pretty young.  But, one of the last real, coherent conversations we had was in October of 2011. She wanted an iPhone, but she said Grandpa John told her she'd never figure out how to use it. She says her response was, "Well, by golly, I'll just get one for myself!" We laughed a lot that day.  I don't remember it, but I listened to it and there we are.  Laughing away.  I'm not even entirely sure what we were laughing about half the time, but there it is. Recorded for posterity. We also talked about her going to Vegas, which she was very keen to do again.  I said she should try to go for her birthday.  Now I think we'll try to go anyway.  I think she would have wanted that.

I don't know how we're doing now, four months after Nannie left us.  I think about those last few horrible days a lot.  I took the midnight-to-eight shift for several nights in a row, hoping Mom and A.P. and Grandpa could get some sleep.  I read aloud to her, even though she was unconscious and I don't know if any words got in, I read anyway.  She read to me when I couldn't understand anything, and I like to think I was paying back the favor.  Every day each of us told her she could leave if she was ready.  We kissed her and said goodbye when it was our turn to go home and try to sleep.  The doctors told us she could stay like that for a week, or longer.  But she waited until it was just her and my mom.  And she left as quietly and gently as she did when we used to nap together in their big, sunny South bedroom.  One minute she was there, and the next she was gone.

I don't think my Grandpa is doing particularly well.  She missed their 67th wedding anniversary by a few short months.  He's putting on as brave a face as he can publicly.  He's still doing his errands, making sure J-City runs smoothly, and dominating the local domino game.  Privately, though.  How could he not miss her?  How could he possibly spend the long hours of the night alone, without missing her every second that passes?  How can any of us make that better?  We can't.  We just can't, and it kills me.  He says, "I just don't think I'm ever going to get over it."  They married when he was 19, and he's 86 now.  He won't ever get over it.  He will carry the pain of losing her until the day he goes to meet her.

A.P. seems to be suffering the loss next most.  Nannie was her bulwark.  And, after pouring so much effort and attention into Nannie's last years, weathering Hurricane Dementia with no seawall, I fear A.P. is a bit lost at sea.  She's still trying to take care of Grandpa, and Husband and I help as and when we can, but it seems like a losing battle when I'm not sure he wants to be here without Nannie.  I am thankful that A.P., at least, has good friends that she can and will talk to.  I hope I count as one of them.

My mom is doing what my mom always does.  She works.  She says her main feeling at her mother's passing is relief.  Relief that Nannie no longer has to suffer.  I believe her, because this has been tied for my top feeling as well.  But, if Mom occasionally feels that she's drowning in sadness, she can always use her job to cover it.  Funny, that.  Psychologists hiding their pain down underneath the pain of everyone else.  Who do they have to talk to?  Is there a Psychologist for Psychologists?

I'm not sure how I'm doing, honestly.  I felt fine until my birthday last month.  I listened to some recordings of us talking together, and I missed her so acutely--so sharply it felt like a blade between my ribs.  And now it comes and goes like the tide.  Nannie and Grandpa John were the two most solid things from my childhood.  More than my parents, more than anything.  Now she's gone, and he's so sad without her.  I haven't baked a loaf of bread since she died.  I'm almost afraid to, but I know I need it.  I need to cover myself in flour like mourners in the bible did with ashes.  It needs to be my real goodbye.  I'll make three loaves.  One for my A.P., who has tried so hard to be our new family seawall.  One for my mom, who most embodies Nannie's Stoic spirit.  The last loaf I will make for one of the most important women of my life, my Nannie.  And maybe I'll eat it, and maybe I won't.  But I know I must make it.  And it should probably be soon.  Hurricane Dementia may be gone, but we're all left picking up the pieces and trying to put things together again.  And the way Nannie taught me to put things together was with words and bread.  I've done one now, as best as I can.  It's time to do the other.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Into That Good Night

On December 9th, my grandmother passed away. It had been several days of drastic, and terrifying decline--following six months of steady and heartbreaking decline. We were sleep deprived, and aware of the fact that we were facing the end of her life.  We knew there wouldn't be a recovery.  There is no recovery from Alzheimer's, only the eventual release, and relief, of death.

I'm not entirely sure I'm ready to write much on the subject--well, not more than I've already written.  I was asked to write a poem for her memorial service card, which I did after a great deal of thought and reflection.  And I wrote what I thought would be a blog post one night when I couldn't sleep, and it turned out to be her eulogy.  My aunt and mother read it at her funeral, and I'm still amazed that those two wonderful women were able to keep themselves collected.  If it'd been me staring out over the casket of my mother, looking at the faces of hundreds of people who'd come to remember a woman they'd loved too--I'd have been bawling my eyes out.

For now, I think I'll leave you with the two things I wrote in the 24 hours after Nannie's passing.  She was a tremendously special, and widely adored woman.  She will be missed very much by very many.

The Eulogy:
We have had a lot of time over the last few days to discuss the measure of a life.  How do you know when a life has been full?  There seems to be as many different opinions about this as there are grains of sand in the Sahara.

 Some think the answer lies in knowledge, and how much you learned in your time here.  And by this measure, she had a full life.  Having gone to college in a time when not many people, especially young women, were able to do so put her ahead of the game when it came to learning.  The fact that she could rarely be found without at least one or two books within reach didn't hurt either.  She could play the piano, and the trombone (though she wanted badly to learn the saxophone, her father didn't approve and thought it wasn't a ladylike instrument).  She could speak French and Spanish, and even wrote in her diary in a mix of three languages so that nobody could understand it if they tried snooping.  No, there's no doubt that if you measure a life by learning that hers was full.

But other people suggested that life should be measured by what you saw of the world.  Americans have a bad reputation in foreign countries for not traveling, but not her.  She has been in more countries than I have fingers.  Canada, Mexico, Panama, Puerto Rico, the Bahamas, Norway, Sweden, Holland, Denmark, Germany, Belgium, Australia, New Zealand, all over the Caribbean.  If life is measured by how much you've seen of the world, she had a full life.

Still, others wondered if life shouldn't be measured in charity, or how much you helped others in your time.  We've been blessed recently with stories of her generosity and kindness towards others.  How she stepped in when someone was struggling to put food in their children's mouths and bought a months worth of groceries.  Or how she helped teach a hard working mother English so that she could get along better in a new, and unfamiliar country.  Or how she adopted people so quickly, making them feel comfortable and welcome in her home even when she'd just met them.  Or how often she would sit and listen to a person's troubles, and find a way to help somehow, even if the best way she could help was just by listening.  No, there's no doubt that of life is measured in kindnesses, that hers was a full one.

And if a life is measured by business success?  Everything her husband struggled for, she stood beside him, helping when she could and supporting him always.  Whether she was bringing sandwiches to the field, or driving a truck during harvest, or taking care of the office work--she was an integral part of their success.  If that's how life is measured, hers was definitely full.

But someone else suggested that maybe life should be measured by how many people will miss you when you're gone.  Looking out across this room today, it's obvious that she had the fullest life possible.  So many people have been in touch to say how very much she has meant to them, and how much she will be missed.  Her sense of humor, her intelligence, her kindness, her acceptance, her support, her generosity, and most of all her love-- all of these things will be missed so greatly, and by so many people.  If this is the true measure of a life, you will never find one as full as hers.

The Poem:
A life of music and laughter should not be grieved.
A life of family, friends, and love should not be mourned.
A life of dancing, and holding hands should not bring sorrow.
A life so full of these things should be celebrated,
And the final freedom of release after a long fight, envied.