As a kid, I used to love visiting my grandparents. My maternal grandpa and grandma used to take me fishing on their boat in Oyster Bay and then out to dinner at Mario’s Pizzeria where I could order anything I wanted. My visits with my paternal grandparents were just as enjoyable, but usually at their home — the house my grandpa refinished with his own hands since he never trusted anyone else with a hammer. My grandma prepared gnocchi with her special marinara sauce for me anytime I requested, even with as little as twenty minutes notice when I would suddenly become hungry after playing badminton in the backyard.
Over the years, our grandparent-grandson relationship changed — most notably when I left New York for college in Boston. Before my senior year, my paternal grandpa had a stroke. It was his wife, the former seamstress turned homemaker, who supported him every minute of the day when he suffered trying to figure out how to live without any mobility on his left side. She bathed, dressed, and was obediently at the former military man’s beck and call. “He’s even a general in the shower,” she said of the experience at the time.
Shortly after graduating from college, my grandma, Fran, who took such excellent care of my paternal grandpa, Paul, was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. At first she left out key ingredients in her recipes, which was followed by the time when she dipped her napkin in her marinara sauce, rolled it up like a ravioli and then bit into it. She also became angry with my grandpa for constantly yelling at her when she made mistakes.
“I’m going to hit him in the head with a frying pan,” she used to say jokingly when she became mad. Only now we weren’t so sure if she was kidding. My grandpa, who had all his wits about him, but was unable to protect himself sitting in his wheelchair if my grandma decided to attack, made the decision to have my grandma live in a nursing home with her ninety-something-year-old sister.
The onus was then placed on my father to find a nursing home, fill out the necessary applications and eventually bring his mother, my grandma, to “visit” her sister. When my grandma was asked to sit in a wheelchair by the facility staff, she looked at my dad, shook her crooked, arthritic finger and said, “You better not be getting any ideas. I’m not staying here.”
My mom came home and told my sister and me that my grandma settled into the nursing home and that the place was very nice, almost like a hotel. When I visited for the first time, I can tell you that if I checked into a hotel like my grandma’s nursing home, I’d check right back out. At first it was the smell of the soiled linens. Then it was the dining area where all of the residents “hung out.” It was four to a table, one person seemingly crazier and needing more assistance than the other.
I visited and brought a donut and a milkshake for my grandma, food that she otherwise wouldn’t have been able to eat in the kosher facility, unless I snuck it in. I wheeled her from the dining area to a common room facing the Meadowbrook Parkway that looked out at speeding cars and trees. The first few visits were fine. She clearly was frustrated and didn’t adjust well to her new residence, asking me, “Can you take me home with you?” at the end of each visit.
As the weeks progressed into months, my grandma eventually forgot who I was, which brings me to the last time I saw my grandma.
I brought her treats and went to wheel her into the common area, but she grabbed the wooden dining room table and wouldn’t let go. I gently placed my hands on top of her hands hoping she’d remember me or at least know I wasn’t going to harm her. Eventually she let go and I started wheeling her out of the room. When we reached the hallway, she dropped her legs on the floor so I wouldn’t be able to move her wheelchair. I giggled nervously, picked her lifeless legs back up after struggling for a bit and wheeled her into the room. She ate the sweets and barely looked in my direction. We had another resident interrupt our visit to tell us that we were in her living room and that we better not take her lamp since it was for her son. I assured her the lamp would remain. When our visitor left, I asked my grandma my name. “Sonny-boy,” she said.
I dropped her back off with the rest of the people in the dining area, kissed her on the cheek and said good-bye. I never thought there would be a day I wouldn’t want to see my grandma anymore, but I didn’t ever step foot back in that nursing home. I couldn’t bring myself to see her in that condition. Nor could I shake the last visit I had with her as good, old “Sonny-boy” even now over a year later.
On the evening of June 4th, I received the news that my grandmother passed away. I immediately tried to think of all the great times we had together. The first thought that came to mind haunted me. It was my grandma holding onto that wooden table and not letting go. Sitting there, a lost soul. When I think of these past few years and her quality of life, I’m glad she had the ability to ultimately know when to let go. I just wonder if I let go too soon.