30 March 2007

the de- and reconstruction of dorothy

She has watched the love of her life introduce himself all those years ago at a dance, all dapper and with that sneaky trouble-making grin on his face. She didn't see it at the time, but that handsome gent nudged his buddy, saying 'I bet you I'll marry that girl'. And he did.

Her eyes have watched over four children, all grown up now, with grandchildren of their own.

I remember her eyes, ever supervisory, ever critical, taking in every detail to ensure that any job she undertook - or those we children were asked to do - was done properly, because that is precisely how a job should be done, period.

Laughing wells of tears pooled in her eyes when her husband recounted funny you-had-to-be-there jokes, like those whose punchlines ended with 'a three-legged dog!'.

Sorrowful, heartbroken tears spilled when the love of her life suddenly died. Spend a lifetime with a person and you'll understand just how long it takes to soften into and with your partner. That kind of time is measured in such a way that it now makes sense to me how two people can regularly dislike one another but how they always always returned to LOVE. I used to have a daydream that Archie Bunker was a not-so-distant relative since both men could be such lovable asses. The times were changing, man.

Dorothy and Les had raised their babies and were now occupied with welcoming their great-grandchildren into the world via the tender cradles of their liver-spotted arms, marveling at how interwoven the generations are.

Then just like that, he was gone. Just like that.

Her gaze began to soften after he was buried. What she saw she couldn't remember, and it became clear soon after her husband's death that her perceptions had already begun their slow process of vacating the premises. That man she pledged her love to had pledged it back: he'd been covering for her. For how long was uncertain, but once he was gone it became all too clear that she would be unable to live on her own.

As long as I could remember from my earliest childhood years she had the most immaculately kept spotless glasses of anyone I'd ever met. I envied her spectacle care; 'How does she do that?', the preteen me used to wonder. I had a feeling something wasn't right several years ago when I started noticing that her glasses began collecting spots and smears. The marked change not being the spots and smears so much as the fact that she didn't care so much about them.

That's when her mind began to fail her.

Her hands were so pretty. So strong! She was constantly vexed throughout the years by her tough dry skin that she continually counteracted by rubbing lotions into, to prevent cracking and chafing. One of my younger sisters has been imbued with the DNA of those lovely graceful hands. I envy her for that.

Her hands led a passel of children through all the years to the toy closet, a magical bedroom closet full of old-fashioned lincoln logs, dress-up dolls, wooden train sets, books.

These hands taught me how to use my very favorite toy in that closet. She demonstrated what 'take care of the ViewMaster' meant and yes, indeedy, it WOULD be taken away if I wasn't doing just that.

These hands played thousands of games of Yahtzee.

These hands have fixed tens of thousands of meals for a variety of family and friends. Yes, by scratch ... she didn't believe there WAS any other way to prepare foods. She folded love into her amazing (and, so far, irreproducible) potato salads. She added a pinch of magic to her canned fruits and veggies. Two generations of babies managed through their drooly teething years gnawing on her dill pickles.

These hands baked pies, prepared the rich percolator coffee every Sunday after church; they helped countless batches of church ladies to make countless batches of lefse before the official day and then served astounding amounts of lutefisk at the annual Norwegian dinner.

These hands sewed her children's clothes from what appeared to be nothing. They created quilts from blanket scraps. They made artistic costumes. These fingers were handy with straight pins and smoothly threaded the sewing machine needle. These hands organized each and every surface of each and every room into just so. These hands held whiffy permanent markers, jotting detailed notes on the boxes as she organized closets into streamlined storage facilities.

Affected as they have been by vascular dementia, these hands now practice few movements: smoothing clothing, scratching an itch, holding onto the handrail as she walks or wheels loops around the care facility she no longer knows to call home.

I watched as her hands led her along the guardrail on the wall towards the patio door. I was there to take her to an audiologist appointment. I didn't expect that she would recognize me, but a throbbing keened in my heart as she repeatedly smoothed my green shirt, asking in a phlegmy rasp, 'take me where I'm supposed to be?'.

Her mind ... I cherish the parts that are gone; I cherish what little is left. The CNAs tell me funny stories of my grandmother's finally-developed sense of humor. She had too much responsibility and too much work to do to afford much time for fun so in a strange way this dementia has freed her, has given her a lightness of being. This staunch German woman slaps people on the ass now, just a pat to offer a kind of naïve howdoyado.

It's hard to tell where that reasoning part of us goes when it leaves. Harder yet to pinpoint the particulars of how memories evaporate into a stare.

I have regrets. I wish she could know how much that silly ViewMaster meant to me. I wish I could show her how I still take care of it now, that it was the one item I wanted to have when her home was sold. I regret that I don't spend more time with her.

I've been wondering if her occasional outbursts and willful upsets are more about what she no longer has access to or, instead, about what little she has left? Maybe both? Maybe neither. I miss the old grandmother I used to know, but it surprises me, this overflowing love I feel for my right-now grandmother, who asks little of me but to take her where she is supposed to be.

edited to add: my older sister and I were talking during my recent road trip to her home and family 2.5 hrs away from me. I told her about the experience I'd had taking Gramma to the ear doc and about finding ways to keep her a meaningful part of our family, which I would guess is a thematic issue for those who have loved ones living with dementia. I can't imagine it has been easy for my father and his siblings to lay down their own personal agendas in favor of doing whatever is best for their mother. They each have lives, we grandchildren are now fully grown and we have families of our own. The guard has changed but nobody seems to have been invited to the ceremony so we all seem to ...muddle through, trying to do a token good thing to allay our feelings of guilt.

My sister looked deeply into my eyes when she asked, "I wonder what Grandpa - if he is still here, watching over us all - thinks. I bet he's so disappointed with all of us." I looked back into her eyes and agreed. It breaks my heart to think I've disappointed him. I don't want to disappoint my grandfather.

27 March 2007

nearing the (b)end

oxidized gears, originally uploaded by McBeth.

A dying man needs to die, as a sleepy man needs to sleep, and there comes a time when it is wrong, as well as useless, to resist.

-- Stewart Alsop

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