Time and again I’ve heard that coffee is bad for you, as I suppose most of us have. Apparently, it exacerbates anxiety, causes irritability, mood swings, sleeplessness, and high blood pressure. If you drink it while looking in the mirror on a New Moon, it makes you grow a third eye. I mean, I get it. I really do. The thing is, I still won’t stop drinking it – even though there are plenty of reasons why I should.
I’m an anxious little person, a worrier. Even on a cold day, I sweat way more than is normal or comfortable. I’m also not great at moderation – apparently the only way to enjoy coffee (or anything else) responsibly. If something makes you feel good the first time, why not keep chasing the high? Ergo, in the wise words of Miley: I can’t stop. And believe me, I’ve tried cutting down on my caffeine intake many times, with varying degrees of success. Going Cold Turkey is just not an option, however. I suffer from intolerable withdrawal symptoms in the form of terrible headaches. What’s worse, I simply cannot produce a meaningful piece of work without sipping my morning coffee first – the little energy kick jumpstarts my brain and gets the creative juices flowing. Sure, it’s a little scary relying on a substance to do that for me, but let’s get real for a moment – surely my drug of choice could be a lot worse.
But that’s not the only reason I’m going to continue sipping away on my caffeine broth. After all, I’ve got a heritage to protect. I come from a family of coffee drinkers. Especially my mum and my nan – my mum’s mum – are dedicated coffee aficionados for life. For us, drinking coffee has always been a bonding exercise as much as anything else. Sure, there have been issues around blood pressure but what are those compared to the warm and fuzzy feeling generated by connecting with your loved ones? Hell, we even pour coffee on my great-grandmother’s grave every year on her birthday because guess what? She too couldn’t live without it.
I wish it would stop there, but it doesn’t. In April this year, my nan was diagnosed with ALS – the debilitating disease that progressively paralyses all muscle activity, leaving you unable to speak, move, swallow, and eventually breathe, essentially entombing you inside your own body. Horrifyingly, it doesn’t affect brain activity – pain medications aside, full consciousness is retained until the very end.
My nan used to be a school teacher and is well-known and respected in her community. She’s always been sociable, if a little impressionable, with a heart of pure gold. Even throughout my worst teenage angst we remained incredibly close, not least because she was like a substitute mother to me during those years when my own mum was too ill to care for me. Ever since my grandpa passed away six years ago, she’s been living alone in their former family home, travelling occasionally and otherwise leading a quiet life. The diagnosis came as a shock to my family. Ironically, none of us had paid much attention to last year’s ice bucket challenge, the purpose of which had been to draw attention to the little-researched illness. Either way, nothing could have prepared us for what was about to unfold and continues to unfold by the day.
The first time I saw my nan again after the diagnosis, my mum’s side of the family was gathering to celebrate her birthday. It was a beautifully sunny day and we were running late on our way to the restaurant. Upon picking up my nan, we discovered that she wasn’t fully dressed yet. A few weeks earlier she’d fallen over in the garden and broke two fingers of her left hand. With that and her right arm growing weaker almost by the day, she was doubly handicapped. I didn’t have time to think twice – I immediately rushed in and helped her put on her clothes. She hasn’t stopped needing help since. In fact, the doctors say they’ve rarely seen an ALS patient grow this much worse so quickly. The average life expectancy post-diagnosis is two to five years, but I doubt my nan will live to see Christmas. It seems surreal, considering that for last year’s holiday we were still preparing food together.
A true product of her generation, my nan has always been relatively private with regard to nudity and bodily functions – I hadn’t seen her fully naked since I was a child. Likewise, I’d never been involved in any sort of care for the elderly. In fact, it was something I’d deliberately avoided because it felt so far out of my comfort zone. Since the diagnosis there have been many firsts for both of us. I’ve helped her go to the bathroom, wiped her bum, changed her pads, emptied her commode. I have also showered her, washed, conditioned and blow dried her hair, applied face cream and body lotion, brushed her teeth, cleaned her dentures, accompanied her to rehab, fed her, wheeled her around in a wheelchair, helped her use her communication device, administered her medication, and stroked her hair at night to calm her down until sleep finally found her. In the blink of an eye, my own comfort zone became irrelevant. All that mattered was making my grandma feel as much at ease as I possibly could.
In the beginning, she was still bashful. In the beginning, she could still talk, albeit with increasing difficulty. In the beginning, there was still a lot of laughter and defiance. Now there’s no more shame and no more talking, and hardly any laughter. Her formerly gentle face has turned into a perpetual frown. She cries often and every time she does, it chills me to the bone – she never used to cry like that before the diagnosis. With assistance, she can still shuffle about. She can’t chew any more, but she can swallow – although she may only have a few weeks of that left. Understandably, her appetite has almost vanished.
Of the few things she still asks for, coffee is one of them. When she could still lift her hand, she drank it through a straw. Even when it came out her nose she kept asking for it. Now that she has barely any strength left, she has to be fed with a spoon. It takes a lot of time and patience, and she’ll only take in very little. But we do it anyway because by now, it’s almost the only thing that’s left of the person she once was. Once the feeding tube has been put in, that’ll be gone too.
How much time she has left on this earth, no one can say for sure. What we do know is that being alive, for her, is little more than an ordeal at this point. Sipping coffee by the spoon is one of the last remaining scraps of joy she’ll ever experience. A few years from now, we’ll be pouring coffee on her grave on her birthday, too. She was born in January so it’ll be cold outside and we’ll all be wrapped in our winter coats, huddled together for warmth, steam rising slowly from our coffee mugs.
And that’s why I’ll never stop drinking coffee. Or at least, it’s the only reason that matters.