Aging Family Ties

Lately I’ve been pretty consumed by driving back and forth from Winston to Rutherfordton (and a few trips to Auburn in between). I’ve been cleaning out my grandmother’s house for my mom, because my grandmother has gone into a nursing home and will never live there  again. My parents own the house because of legal arrangements made before my grandfather died 11 years ago.

So, the nursing home arrangement has resulted in a family response that is almost like dealing with a death in the family. Simply because my grandmother’s life in that house is over now, and now my parents are left with the reality of processing the remnants physically. And its fate remains undetermined at this point, although we, as a family, bat around a lot of ideas — renting, selling, remodeling, etc.

It’s been very hard on my mom, as it basically means the dissolution of her childhood home. She has cried a lot, seeing a lot of memories vanish out the door into a truck bound for Goodwill, rooms empty out, and her childhood swept clean. She is the first generation in her family to put anyone in a nursing home. When she was growing up, she never had to go through any type of situation like this, because when a great-grandparent or grandparent became infirm, they came to live with their children, in the family home. She grew up with multiple generations living in a house at a time, as did her parents and grandparents. I don’t know if it was because of a lack of facilities at those times, or a lack of money for paying for said facilities, or a deep-rooted idea that family was to care for family until their dying day in whatever way possible. Whichever reason, that’s just the way things were back then.

My parents married during a recessed economy much like the one we have now, and they lived with my grandparents for a time until they were able to purchase a house cheaply from my great-grandfather, Phin. Phin also lived in my grandparents’ house for the last years of his life, after my parents had married and had a child. He died when I was eight, still living with my grandparents. He never lived in a nursing home or facility. He never lost his mind, either.

There has been familial and other opposition to my mother’s decision to seek professional care for my grandmother. But there is no way either of them would have been able to tolerate living in the same house at this point. And what we’ve all seen since she has moved is that she is much better off in terms of personal safety. Before, when she lived alone, she fell twice, and was not able to take care of normal household maintenance in the way she needed to. Since moving, she’s fallen once and reluctantly uses a walker now. She also spends most days staring out the window in her room, going to bed at 2:00 pm, and declining to participate in any of the social activities provided by the home where she lives now.

It’s not a typical nursing home. It doesn’t smell of urine and despondency. It’s more active than most, more upbeat. There is a live-in dog who makes the rounds visiting and getting love. He is a brindle boxer named Sam. My grandmother calls him Sam-Bo. She tries to introduce us to him every time we visit as if we’ve never seen him before. And she calls to her neighbors passing in the hall, as if this is the first visit, the first opportunity to show off her family. Every visit is like the first visit. Her mind doesn’t retain recent events. She lives internally. She often mentions people who died before I was born, as if I ought to know them. She doesn’t care about making friends or taking part in Everybody Wins Bingo or Banana Split Night or painting Christmas stockings. She doesn’t have Alzheimer’s, as far as anyone can tell. Just dementia. But she has forgotten a lot. And it makes me wonder if that is just what happens.

I keep scrapbooks. I save movie ticket stubs, concert programs, pictures, thank you notes, invitations even to events I don’t attend, any kind of physical reminder of the life I have lived. I do this mainly because I envision a time when I will be in a place like where my grandmother lives now, when I will want to reflect on younger, happier times. The times when I was able to go and do and live. I imagine wanting to pore over those albums, touching ticket stubs and remembering wonderful times I had when I was young, boys I kissed, and trips I took. But my grandmother has no desire for those things, because they are happening in her mind all the time, and she doesn’t need the physical reminders. It’s as if, with time, she regresses farther into the past. I’m not sure this is a bad thing. To want to reflect on young, vibrant years. I imagine I will do the same, while fingering my scrapbooks.

What’s concerning about it is her tendency to discard recent years and recent memories for old ones. Her focus on the distant past has clouded her memory of the recent past. She didn’t know one of my cousins at Christmas Eve until after two explanations. This person married into my family when I was nine. But to my grandmother’s physiology, that’s too recent to merit memory cells. She has introduced me to my own cousins I’ve known since birth, as if we were new acquaintances. She has, at least once, questioned my mother’s explanation of how the two of them are related. How does the brain  become so clouded that someone wouldn’t recognize their own child? How is this evolutionarily beneficial? Is it the brain’s method of severing ties to earthly concerns as a person nears death? Is it allowing them to let go, like the first step in the exit-journey, when they have all but forgotten what ties they still have to an earthly existence? Is it the blessing of old age? Because younger people with terminal illness don’t receive the same “luxury.” They know who is at their bedside, and who they are leaving behind.

What concerns me most is that I don’t know which is better. The situation has made my family have a lot of conversations about death and end-of-life experiences. I know now that both my parents would prefer to be cremated, and that they do not want extraordinary life-saving measures performed on them. Even if I don’t have power of attorney over such things yet, because both are still in good health, these are good things to know. Good things to talk about, however unlikely it seems that it will be relevant any time soon.

I know I want to be cremated, although I don’t think I expressed that to them. I’d like my ashes scattered into some body of water. Whether lake, ocean, or creek, it doesn’t matter to me. I feel equally at home at all of those places. But water is where I feel most naturally calm and peaceful. So if y’all don’t want me haunting your asses, you better dump my silt into some beautiful watery place for all eternity! LOL! I think my spirit would feel trapped if interred either bodily or ashily in one permanent spot.

I’m a wanderer, so I’m probably gonna wander between dimensions after death as much as possible. Don’t be surprised if I show up again on this side now and again. And if there is any way to communicate from the other side, you can bet I’m gonna be seeking out John Edward or whoever in hopes of getting a message across. You know how I am about imparting information.

With all the departed spirits who have connections to my grandmother’s house, the only ones I felt strongly while working there were my grandfather and great-grandfather. My great-grandfather, Phin — pretty sure he was looking over my shoulder while I was cleaning out his dresser in the bedroom he lived during the last years of his life. I found his old harmonica, some brass knuckles, and legal papers. Among other things. But I’ve never felt so plainly like someone was in the room with me, standing behind me, watching me. At one point, I said out loud, “Don’t worry, Grandpa, I’m not getting rid of anything good!” After that point, it eased.

I felt my grandfather more when going through household things, like a bottom shelf of tile and primer, or an old china cup full of dusty nails and screws, rather than his cherished belongings. Since he died 11 years ago, there wasn’t that much of his left, but I did save a bottle of his aftershave, which I think is no longer in production, and which is probably why my grandmother had kept it in his shaving cabinet for so many years. It is amazing how one whiff of something like that can absolutely flood your senses with memories that seem so much more concrete than what you had tried to hazily conjure after a length of time. I found one of his favorite belts with buckle that I’ve adopted as my own. A worn brown leather belt with a large brass buckle that reads, “Old truckers never die, they just get a new Peterbilt.” I’m wearing it now. 🙂 That, and his WWII dog tags are all I have from him. But I think of him every time I see a neatly kept red tip bush, or a particularly pretty bird hanging out near me or a hawk gliding overhead like it’s checking me out. He loved birds, particularly hawks. I saw a red-tailed hawk fly over the house the last time I was down there, surveying the domain. Maybe reassuring me that this is all perfectly okay. What is supposed to happen will happen. We are always exactly where we are meant to be in this moment.

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1 Comment

  1. Aaron said,

    February 11, 2011 at 6:12 pm

    That is profound, Megs. I remember your grandfather well. I can almost convince myself that I remember that beltbuckle. You have really captured the meaning of family. Your grandfather is the hawk.


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