This post is a draft in progress...
Death’s a sad Bone; bruised, you’d say,
and yet she waits for me, year after year,
to so delicately undo an old wound,
to empty my breath from its bad prison. -Anne Sexton, "Wanting to Die"
In a studio apartment decorated with all the charms of home, my grandmother sits high on her much coveted bed, with its fluffy pillows, and crisp blue and white flowered quilt. We’d always love to have sleepovers with her just to have the chance to sleep on that bed, soft, high, pillows piled like clouds! Not to mention the cookies…there were always cookies!
Now the bed reigns in this new apartment in a nearly new assisted living facility. It’s clean and bright, with family photos scattered across every surface: the faces of each of her seven grandchildren smiling from school portraits; the faces of her long-gone siblings, at least seven, from family parties and days of their youth in the Bronx. She has outlived most of her family, except for one sister at least ten years her junior now struggling with kidney failure. She has outlived her husband for twenty-one years. She has outlived nieces and nephews, who willed her their savings that is helping to pay for her care, here.
The room has at least six plants on the windowsill, and another in front of the door on a table. There is artwork framed on the walls, some professional, some by my cousins. There are decals of flowers on the wall next to her bed, and the wall near the door as we walk inside. It’s cheery. This room has been her home for the past six months, following a mini-stroke about five months prior to that. The room is in the Memory Care Unit for patients with dementia, or those who like to wander; many residents wear anklets to monitor their location. The doors to this wing are always locked. Only key visitors and staff have the special, ever-changing code to unlock doors to the main room with its grand fireplace, or the dining rooms, or the other wing where the mailboxes and other sections of the facility. There is a small courtyard near the common area, which allows residents to gather to watch television, or to take in some sun, or to do crafts in the adjoining activities room.
This place smells faintly good with a side of urine, impending death. Mainly, it breathes hope. Of course, many people here do not have family left, or family nearby to visit them, or to check on their care as often as would be ideal. At our recent visit, my grandmother remarked how lucky she is to have so many people come see her, or call. She had just been released from the hospital after a bout of pneumonia that turned out to be much more.
My aunt and uncle, who now have power of attorney, live fifteen minutes from the assisted living facility. My mother and other uncle, who live in my grandmother’s home, (her primary caregivers) are two and a half hours away when there is not much traffic. I, the oldest grandchild, am about three plus hours away, and a few other cousins in New England are five or six hours away. Still, we are finding ways to manage the distance.
Assisted living costs: Independence with monitoring, room and board, a meal plan, activities, health services, physical and other related therapies, laundry…all bearing resemblance to college. Only here there are nurses to weigh you and make sure you are taking medication that you might otherwise forget, which then makes you refuse to take it because dementia and other neurological conditions confuse, make you paranoid, distrust authority. After her stroke, grandma often accused us of trying to poison her when suggesting she take her usual blood pressure pills, or later the medicine that was supposed to quell the onset of dementia and paranoia caused by the stroke. She never took it for long, even after all the tests, even after explaining it may have allowed her to remain in her home for a while. Realistically, at 87 the house had become a hazard to her, its stairs, its drafts, its carpeting, its suspect shadows.
After the stroke, we had to deadbolt the doors up high, so she could not wander out into the darkness and get hit by a car or forget her way home.
“You are locking me in like a prisoner!” She’d scream at my mother, or “I can’t go anywhere…you are all trying to kill me!”
She began hiding knives under the couch cushion to protect herself from us. She tried to hit my mother with the broom, or her purse, whatever was handy…
Logically, you recognize that she did not mean it, and it was not her fault for fearing you irrationally. It did not make it hurt any less. I remember when she thought I had turned on her, too, another part of the conspiracy to imprison her. She glared at me, with furious tears, saying, “Not you, too! Why would you do this to me? You are all going to hell.” I said that was fine…I’d go, but that this was to help, not hurt her. I’ll never forget the disbelief on her face.
After the stroke, my grandmother had no sense of time. She would forget immediately when it was, even after you told her only a moment ago, “It’s 4 PM, almost time to start making dinner.”
She’d say to my mother, “Is it time to make dinner? Can I feed the dog now?”
She would ask what time it was again, then look at the clock to be sure we were not trying to trick her.
She’d go to the windows at night, while we were watching television, or after we’d all try to go to bed. We’d find her staring out into the darkness, but she could not understand it was nighttime. She stopped sleeping, so we stopped sleeping. We knew we needed help.
Now that she’s gone, everything must change.
We had had first Christmas without her a few weeks ago. My mother put up the beautiful tree adorned with assorted ornaments, some that still shined from my childhood, others with photos of some of her grandkids as babies, several long-gone pets, and those we gave her for Christmases past. My grandmother loved birds, so lots of cardinals sat perched between the mutli-colored LED lights (which, with a click of a remote could be switched to white, or other twinkle patterns or static glows…she really loved that remote). There were ornaments from my cousin Erin’s world travels, and some funny Disney characters, along with that lady Maxine. My grandma got a kick out of her, and even had a Maxine cookie jar for a time. While the place was fairly decked, it was not as over-the-top as my mom and grandma’s usual holidayness… Later, my mother admitted she did not want to put the tree up but my uncle had asked her to do it. “This will be the last time,” he said.
The house is to go up for sale soon, with legalities that require it. Had my grandmother lived a bit longer and her Medicaid had kicked in, this may not have been the case. I am certain that knowing her home was being forced out of her children’s hands would have devastated her as much as it is devastating all of us, now. My grandparents had been there for forty years, come up from the Bronx and made their way to a better life in this corner lot, split-level ranch with a modest yard, trees, bird baths and squirrel feeders, swings and hammocks, a shed and garden that the family helped build, tend, or tear down over the years. Their back patio was where my cousin and I had our summer birthday parties. That yard was where we ran through our Donald Duck sprinkler, climbed a mimosa tree, made hair wreaths from weeping willow fronds, went sledding, played in a kiddie pool, or later walked the various rescue dogs we always fell for (even when one bit my grandma and put her in the hospital).
This was first year in a long time when my mother waited for me to come home to make my grandfather’s family’s Hungarian strudel. This was tradition that we did not do ever year (it’s a lot of work). I remember watching my grandfather making it in the orignal kitchen, with its dark wood-paneling, when I was little. I remember even better my mother making it in one of our old apartments on a small table in the living room, how I would have to help cut and place the dough in greased bowls around the apartment so it could rise: all those colorful correl and pyrex bowls sitting on steam radiators covered with dishtowels. The oven was a tiny, ancient thing that never baked anything evenly…I don’t know how she made it work for all those years before that apartment caught fire from an electrical issue on the other side of the house (we shared the building with the town judge’s law office). I was later away at school, busy trying to determine how to survive and graduate, then teach and graduate again…each end of semester meant longer and longer papers to finish, and all those student papers to grade. Getting home before grades were due was nearly impossible so I was not involved in the strudel except when eating it and stealing some to take back with me.
Still, a few years ago, I asked my mother for the recipe with some notion that as the oldest grandchild (even living in a small apartment with an outdated oven) that I would someday need to make it on my own. I still have her note on the fridge, but the truth is she just wrote a list of ingredients. When I called her out on this she admitted that no one had really written down the recipe…and that my grandparents had also only an old scrap of yellowed list paper specked with crisco and apricot filling, no doubt, with the ingredients on it. So this year, I decided to participate in the making but to primarily write down the directions so the rest of us would have something to follow. After all, as a writer, I was drawn to the task. I also took some videos to add visual guidance and for posterity, which I’m sure my mother would not appreciate. My mother reminded me not to put too much filling on the thin layer of dough as we rolled each onto the flour-and-sugar piled cutting boards. I really like a bit more filling, though, so I added some extra and, to be fair, I have no real idea of how much is too much having not made the stuff in years. We are stubborn in this family, especially me, so no one was surprised at this. As she had predicted, the strudels with extra filling (it really was a slight amount) split and cracked in the oven. Did they taste delicious? You’re darn right they did. Did they look slightly less appealing? Barely, since you cut them into small pieces like little rugelach and sprinkle them with powered sugar. The thing about this strudel is it is nothing like the flakey German or Jewish versions you might know. Those are delicate, sweet, moist. This dough is thick with sour cream and comes out like a dense hybrid of cake and bread, hence you must roll it thinly. It’s a hearty dough for keeping your poor family full, not some frivolous dessert. I ate a lot of strudel this Christmas: for breakfast with my coffee, as a snack between meals, sometimes as dessert or a late night snack watching crappy cable on my grandmother’s couch where she always sat and had her cake or Ritz cackers. I took a bunch of strudel home (traditional apricot, my favorite, and rasberry, a new flavor we had never made) and ate it daily for two weeks, even when I was not that hungry to keep home close.