I don't want to do this. I consider turning around, going back through the front door.
But I promised myself I'd visit. I don't want to have regrets.
When it comes to my grandmother, I think, perhaps it is too late not to have regrets. I already regret barely visiting her during the whole decade she's been in nursing care. I regret her aging, her dementia, the very passage of time. I regret that for my whole adulthood, our relationship has been forced, static, lifeless.
I've gone months between visits, sometimes a year or two. I don't even visit at Christmas. I send a box of chocolate-covered cherries and a cat calendar. Apparently, a $3.49 box of candy and a cat calendar delivered via proxy is all I can muster up for a woman who gave me great cheekbones, a pleasant singing voice, unconditional love, and a lifetime of happy childhood memories.
In some ways, I'm finished. I've been ready for her to die.
I feel a familiar rush of sadness when I see her. She is lying in bed with her eyes closed. She never wears her false teeth anymore and her lips are horribly sunken. I sit down at the side of her bed and put my hand on hers.
"I went to the bathroom, but I don't know if I did it right," comes a voice from the other side of the room.
I guess this is my grandmother's roommate. I look over and smile at her. "I'm sure you did fine."
"I mean, I've never seen one like that before," she continues, not looking at me, talking to no one in particular. "I don't know how it works."
Nanny opens her eyes. She looks shocked, then smiles and says what she always says when she sees me. She calls me her name. "Juanita! Oh, what a surprise!"
"How are you feeling?" I ask.
She says quite clearly, "Sick of shit."
Nanny seems to remember me as a very young adult. She asks if I have my own apartment, and where I'm living. I pull up a recent picture of my son and show it to her, telling her I'm married and have a little boy now. She stares at the picture a long time, and her eyelids start to droop.
"I could go to sleep," she says.
I tell her it's OK and sit there, my head propped up on one arm and my other hand holding her hand. I look at her bulletin board full of pictures and cry a little. We spend the next few minutes like that, her drifting in and out of awareness. When she is awake, she stares at me or asks me questions, like where I live, or where she lives, or if I know any of the nurses. Occasionally, like an oracle, she says something unintentionally but remarkably philosophical: "Which way do we go?" she asks once. And another time, "We've been here for so long. But it's nice." Then she drifts back to sleep.
She's tired. Her body is shutting down.
I've been mourning my grandmother for years. She's not the woman I used to know -- because she's bedridden and suffers from dementia, yes, but also because I've grown up enough to see her as a flawed individual.
I miss my childhood, when she was the ideal grandmother. Nanny doted on me. Called me "Princess." Spent hours playing with me -- Tiddlywinks or Old Maid or restaurant. When I was very small, we'd sit in her recliner and pretend we were in an elevator in a fancy department store. "Going up," she'd say, and we'd recline all the way back to the third floor, ladies' dresses. She gave me milk from an ice-cold mug she kept in the freezer. "Good, cold milk," she always said. I knew she loved me. I knew she was proud of me.
The illusion that our parents and grandparents are perfect is one of the gifts of childhood. By the time I was a teenager, I perceived the tension between my grandmother and my dad. I knew that she had been at times an absent mother, because of her severe anxiety, and at other times a harsh, unforgiving one. She had a mean side. She was judgmental; she could be cutting. Mostly, I think, because she lived with so much fear.
My grandmother coped with her chaotic inner life by regimenting her outer life, quelled her anxiety by staying busy -- vacuuming, dusting, scrubbing, organizing. I'd bring her my messy jewelry box, and she'd patiently untangle my necklaces. When no tasks were left, she twisted tissues and worried over scraps of paper, folding and refolding the same piece. She was always that way. Even when she was little, while her siblings played outside, she sat inside at her mother's sewing box, sorting buttons.
I came to understand that those tasks saved her. I have often said to myself in the clutches of anxiety, "If I keep moving, I won't die." In the nadir, I am soothed by purposeful action. Once during a particularly bad episode, I went with my mother to a neighbor's for whom she was pet-sitting. Their cat had thrown up on a kitchen rug. We both bent down to clean it, and as I leaned over the spot and worked my arms, hot tears fell. I gulped back a sob of relief. "This is the happiest I've been all week," I whispered.
Before, when my grandmother was in the nursing home but still lucid, the visits were suffocating. She stared at me appraisingly, obsessed over my making the drive to see her and my living alone. She wanted to know if I was safe "in the city" (note: I didn't live in the city) and if I was living around "colored people" (there are no words). Visiting her reminded me of what I was afraid to become. I had to get out so I could breathe and be. I knew I was better educated and more self-aware than she, but I still always felt that I was just treading water, striving against a current that wanted to pull me down, into my genetic heritage and a terrifying insularity.
As my grandmother's health deteriorated, visits with her became less frustrating and more melancholy. Around the time I was beginning in therapy to accept my anxiety disorder and to treat myself with compassion, I began to grieve on my grandmother's behalf for what anxiety had taken from her. I wished for her a new life in which she'd have proper treatment for her illness. She would travel in this life, drive a car. When storms came, she would stand in the rain and feel the thunder in her belly instead of hiding in the closet with a flashlight.
I had one daydream, again and again: Nanny abandons her wheelchair, and like the mythical phoenix, perishes in a blaze of glory. As the flames rise, all pains and worries shrivel about her. She is reborn, young and unafraid. As she lifts, I can feel the air beneath her pumping wings.
She leaves me. She leaves one bright feather, drifting from the sky into my hand.
It appears that Nanny isn't going to open her eyes anytime soon, so I shift my weight to my feet, ready to leave -- and when I do, her eyes blink open.
"Aren't you going to talk to me?" she says. "Talk to me, Juanita."
So I do. I tell her about being at her house as a child, about playing restaurant and Tiddlywinks and Old Maid. As I talk, she stares at me as if from a deep chasm. As if I am speaking a foreign language. I can see her searching for meaning. Then she gets tired and closes her eyes again.
I leave the room, for the last time and without ceremony.
On the way out, I want to hug the nurses and tell them they are good people, because I could never do the job they do. But I am crying, and I feel trapped, as in one of my recurring dreams where I can't find my way out of a hospital. I'm both ashamed and enormously relieved to walk out the main door, into sunlight and my terrible, terrible freedom.
This post was one of four winners in the Term Paper of the Year competition at the 2016 BlogU Conference.