I’m in North Carolina, visiting family, just because. Just because I live 3000 miles away and sometimes phone calls just don’t do it. Just because my grandmother is turning 89 in a couple of weeks and is convinced she will die immediately thereafter because her mother died shortly after her 89th birthday. Just because, as much as I love California, sometimes it’s nice to return to a place where, love it or hate it, 25 years of living in one place has made everything familiar.
My grandmother is in a nursing home. About a year ago my parents moved her from an assisted living facility to a nursing home because of her health requirements. Each time I’ve visited her in the nursing home I’m sad. Sad because I walk down halls of people staring blankly into space, hunched over in wheelchairs, immobile, drool sliding down chins. Sad because when I enter her room, that’s her. Sometimes she’s cognizant enough to have what I think is a coherent conversation. Other times she rambles and no one in the room has any idea what she’s talking about or who she thinks she’s talking to. And that change, from coherent to incoherent, can happen almost instantaneously.
Today I arrived. She was, as she often is, slumped over in her wheelchair, eyes closed, mouth partly open. I rubbed her hunchbacked shoulders. “Grandma? Hi beautiful, it’s us. Wake up, now.” She slowly opens her eyes, stares blankly past us, and says nothing. “Grandma? It’s Lori. How are you?”
She continues to stare. I get ready to make another comment when she utters, “Lawd. You still here?” I’m not sure whether she means still here in North Carolina, or still here from yesterday’s visit, or if she thinks I already came this morning.
“I’m here. We’ve come to visit. Daddy and me.”
“I’m feelin’ horrible. Jus’ horrible. I don’ like the pain. Ready to go to the next place. Ev’theen hurts…” and with that she hunches over and her words slur to incomprehensible utterances.
“Grandma, I’m going to brush your hair, okay? Let’s make you pretty.”
I run a soft bristle brush through her feathery soft white hair. It’s not very long, but it curls so pretty at the ends. I brush softly, first her bangs, then work my way around to the back of her head. She is silent. I continue brushing.
“There, there. Your hair is so soft, Grandma. You look so pretty. Look how nice your hair is, so soft, with curls just right here and there.”
“Lawd. That feels so good. You gone put me to sleep. Brush my hair or rub my back. Feels so good. Babies got it good. Ev’one always doting on them. No won’er they always sleepin’.”
A moment of lucidity. I cherish this. I know it can vanish without warning.
We stroll her out to the patio, hoping the sunshine and fresh air will lift her spirits. She begins ranting about her pajama bottoms and we’re not sure what she’s talking about so we just listen. Finally Daddy says, “Mother, what are you talking about?” She stares once again. We wait, patiently. “I don’ know. I don’ know what I be sayin’.” And she slouches.
Daddy and I look at each other. He tries again. “Mother…”
We carry on with small talk for another few minutes.
She raises her head and looks straight at me. “I’m parched. My lips ahr dry an’ I’m parched.”
We wheel her back inside and I rub Vaseline on her lips. She begins to lick them. “Grandma, stop that. If you lick your lips, they’re going to get even more chapped. Let me rub some more Vaseline on them. There, that will make them soft. There, there.”
The blank stare returns. She’s not hearing me.
“How are your hands? Here, let me rub some lotion on your hands. Would you like that?”
She stares past me, her blue eyes cloudy through her thick lenses.
I get the lotion and squirt a generous amount into my palm. I take her left hand and begin to rub it. She doesn’t speak, but grips me tightly, so that I can barely rub the lotion. I hold her hand just as tight, then begin massaging it, finger by finger. She returns the pressure, not saying a word, still staring past me. I look down at her hands, her paper thin skin gathered over bulging blue veins, crooked bony fingers. I rub, and massage, and rub, and massage, until all the lotion is soaked in. She’s still holding on tightly.
“Grandma, let’s do the other hand, okay? Won’t that feel good, to have the other hand just as soft?”
She reluctantly drops my hands. I squeeze lotion into my palms, and begin on her right hand. I rub, and massage, and rub, and massage. This time she doesn’t match the pressure I place on her fingers; she doesn’t grip my hand, holding tightly to another. This hand isn’t as strong, or maybe she’s already gone to the place that’s not here.