Tuesday, September 19, 2006


I've been avoiding visiting her. I tell myself it's because I'm so busy, but I know that's a half-truth. I defer spending time with Mama, my grandmother, because she is succumbing to dementia. She is no longer the woman I remember. Like a petulant child, I am avoiding unpleasantness - the sad discomfort of witnessing Mama's decline.

She once was an auburn-haired woman with sturdy arms and legs, capable of anything. My Mama raised seven children, and cared for her chronically-ill husband until his early death. Mama worked at a care facility for disabled children. She cooked a mean roast dinner and the best peanut biscuits ever. She chaired a women's writers group. Until the past year or two, she giggled like a schoolgirl at any mildly off-colour joke you could come up with. I went to see Mama today, in the nursing home where she now resides. My mother warned me beforehand that Mama's memory had deteriorated since I last saw visited. Mum wasn't sure if Mama knew who any of the family were any more.

As I walk in, I see her. Mama sits at table, snowy-haired and blue-eyed, looking so small. She is smiling in my direction. She looks pleased and surprised, though slightly perplexed. It must feel like when someone greets you at the shops, and for a moment you just can't place them. It must feel like that for Mama every day.

Mama knows her memory and language are failing. Over and over she starts to speak, then shakes her head in exasperation when she cannot finish. Tears fill her eyes, and she puts a hand to her forehead, "I'm going silly in the head". Her lips quiver as she tries to get a handle on her emotions. She repeats, " I'm so silly", and apologises. I touch her arm and tell her she's not; it's OK. I tell her I know she must feel so frustrated. I feel useless in the face of Mama's obvious pain.

Mama is touchingly concerned that my little son needs entertaining. She suggests a walk to a small sunroom.
"See the birds, they...."
"One of the other ladies put a ...."
Mama's sentences go unfinished as she struggles to grasp the words, or is it the thought itself that slips away? Eventually, another resident in a wheelchair comes and speaks to us. She describes how she has bought a seed stick and wired it to the fence, to attract the crested pigeons. I can see a bird now, feasting on the sticky treat. Mama's face lights up, as her meaning is finally conveyed; as we stand together watching the bird peck and fluff up its' feathers.

We walk to Mama's room, and she excuses herself to use the shared ensuite bathroom. A few minutes later, Mama opens the door to leave the bathroom, then hesitates, and slowly manoeuvres back into the bathroom to wash her hands. She washes thoroughly. She places a piece of paper towel carefully under the soap dispenser, where there is a small amount of liquid soap pooled. She takes the paper towel she has dried her hands with, and meticulously wipes down the taps and basin top. I am fascinated by her deliberation and thoughtfulness. I feel guilty to be surprised that Mama's nature remains essentially unchanged by her dementia. I know some people are changed. That must intensify the distress for their loved ones. But my Mama is just as lovely now as she ever was - gentle but prepared to have her quiet say, always thinking of others, loving, quick to smile. Her sparkling intellect has been dulled, but I remember it clearly - so clearly that I sometimes believe it is still there.

A cleaner bustles in to the bathroom, chatting breezily about how fast the toilet paper gets used in the bathrooms. Mama quips, "They must eat it, hmm?". The bustling blond cleaner laughs out loud. "I reckon they must!". Mama pipes up again, " This is my grand-daughter. She's a.... she's a doh....". Mama's eyes well up again, and she shakes her head.

The cleaner is well-meaning, but she has that high-pitched and over-exaggerated manner of speaking, as if talking to a child. " Don't worry love, you're doing fine, you speak really well", she gushes to Mama. I feel a prickle of annoyance. I don't want her speaking to my grandmother in such a condescending tone, however kind the intention. Mama is still insightful, she still knows she is losing her mind to dementia. To deny her the right to express the hurt and confusion she feels seems wrong.

Mama lifts her head up, wipes her eyes, and tries again. "She's a doctor!", Mama blurts triumphantly. The cleaner looks suspiciously at me - I am wearing ponytail, running shoes and cargo pants. I nod, and confirm that I really am a GP. I grin at Mama and she grins back, all proud grandmother. I'm so proud of her.

When it's time to leave, Mama insists on walking us to the front door. As she begins on her wobbly walker way, I realise I will have to escort her safely back to the dining hall before I can depart. We will become locked into a repeating cycle of accompanying each other to the car park and back to the common area. I find a volunteer who offers to walk with us.

On the front path, I kiss Mama's papery cheek. Ever-polite, she thanks me for coming by. Morbidly, I wonder if this will be our last conversation. I tell Mama that I love her as I hug her goodbye.

My mother tells me that Mama doesn't remember when people come to see her. The very next day she has no memory of ever seeing a visitor. Sometimes she is forlorn, believing that no-one ever visits, yet her youngest daughter comes by almost daily.

I will remember the visit in her stead. I will remember her as she was, and as she is now. She is a woman of infinite grace. She is my beautiful Mama.


susan said...

How fortunate that you still have your Mama, and she still has you to visit her. And she was in a writing competition! Now we know where you get it - by the way - how is that competition coming? This post would make a great entry!

We have a friend who visits his 90+ mother regularly in the nursing home. He says she doesn't know who he is, but she likes him.

Thanks for a great story.

Heather said...

This post shows us what a beautiful person your Mama is. It also shows us what a beautiful person you are.

Motherkitty said...

This brought tears to my eyes. What a sweet story of your beloved grandmother. You are so lucky to have her in your life and that you and your mother are able to visit her -- even if she doesn't remember that you were there.

I have a friend who suffered a major stroke about a year ago which left her with the same frustrating inability to articulate. She doesn't have dementia, but her mind can't seem to form and articulate thoughts. In the beginning, right after her stroke, she had the same head-knocking, lip quivering reaction when she couldn't get the words out.

Your grandmother is so lucky. She has you, and the rest of her family, to love her. You are her pride and joy -- the Doctor. We are so lucky to know you -- the Friend.

mackeydoodle said...

This really touched my heart. It made for a good morning cry. That's O.K. It was tears for fond memories that I have of my Gramma.
I honestly felt the love for your Mama through your words. You are a beautiful soul Jelly....I can feel it all the way through cyber space.

Pamela said...

So much compassionate heartfelt words, memories that you will cherish forever. I so received your loving desire to protect you Mama, when the louder cleaning woman talked down to her. It is such a sad desease, kind of like watching someone slowly slip away from us. Nancy Reagan spoke so elequently regarding Ronald Reagan have this sad desease. You all are blessed to have each other!

Remiman said...

Oh Jelly, what a beautiful story!
I didn't cry. No, I didn't, Well not out loud anyway.
You live life well and you see the world with loving eyes.
I cherish the moments of time you share with us.

Anonymous said...

Jelly, this was a touching post about your Grandmother. I wonder if you have shown her any of your writing? She would be so proud of you. How frustrating it must be for Mama to not be able to find the words. Thank you for sharing this intimate part of you life with us. This is why we love you so much!

T. said...

jhebxaqgDamn Jelly, more tears.

How I would love to meet your mama and your mum. They sound so lovely. My heart breaks for all of you.

My gramma lost her battle to dementia and cancer last spring. I still remember those visits. She'd keep candy in her bedside drawer for my kids and she always had a rattle for Shalebug. Eventually, the only person who could reach her was my little Bug.

I used to leave notes by her bedside to remind her that I visited, or that I loved her. She was so lonely and lost.

Now it is my fervent prayer that she is taking care of my Shalebug and telling him stories about what a trouble maker I was.

John Cowart said...

What a beautiful tribute to love!

I hope that most of the things she can remember are lovely things.

May she grow in grace even as she grows older and full of days.

Franny said...

OMG I am crying here...that poor woman. I know, but its not pity, its a shame that we have to go down that road at all.

God bless you for visiting her, because even though she may forget you came, while you were there, she was HAPPY.

Kerri said...

Oh boy Jelly, you've made me cry again! Stop it, I say!
That was such a beautiful tribute to your Grandma. I can see that both you, and your mother before you, have inherited her thoughtful, sweet nature and intelligence. She will always live in the two of you.
Oh yes, you've definitely inherited her love and talent for writing! I was thinking the same thing as Susan...this post would be perfect for the competition.
You are bringing joy to your grandma (and yourself) when you go visit her. You are a precious soul Jelly.

Abandoned in Pasadena said...

Jelly, you write such moving storing that by the end you have brought your readers to tears. You are indeed a very gifted writer and I think that you should enter this writing in your competition about your Mama.

Even though your grandmother can't remember that you were there, at least you make her happy when you are there.

Val said...

Thank you, Jelly, for sharing that with us. I can imagine it was a sad-sweet post for you to write. But you have done your grandmother proud.

jellyhead said...

*Thank you* everyone for your empathetic and encouraging comments. And Susan, thanks for your suggestion. I think I just may send this in to the competition (with a bit of revision, and some addition, to make it to the required 1000 words)

Abandoned in Pasadena said...

Wasn't it nice to find out from your aunt Zany that your Mama did remember your visit.

thisisme said...

I agree with all Susan - enter this one into the competition. I'm having a bit of an emotional day today (which I think you noticed!), and found myself in floods of tears reading the post after this. I'm so happy that she remembered your visit.

meggie said...

What a moving story.
My Mother in law got Alzheimers, & it was so painful to see.
We live in another country, & when we went to visit her the last time she was able to speak, the only one she recognized was our (adult)son. He was so happy!

She has gone now, & I can only feel, to a better place.

shellyC said...

I finally set aside some uninterupted time to read your post! Jelly it was beautiful and my eyes are full of tears. So wonderful that she did remember your visit too.

Andrew said...

When you mentioned in Thursday's post about your Mom remembering, it reminded me so much of the movie "The Notebook." It sounds sad (that she struggles to remember) and triumphant (that she succeeded yesterday) at the same time!

I hope both you and she have a great weekend!

Alice said...

Your dear Mama will always be alive and loved whilst ever you have such lovely memories of her and are prepared to share them with other. Do please tell your children about her.