I decided to venture out of the house with my grandmother this evening, away from Metro right as it got to a particularly exciting part. In truth, I didn’t really want to leave the dark comfort of my room but a particular guilt or obligation was eating away at me and I could not leave it any longer. She leaned in my door and told me she was going to visit my great-grandmother in the nursing home, and asked whether I wanted to come along.
This is where it gets complicated for me, as I love my great-grandmother, and I loved to see her, just not the way she is now. So I hop into the car, boom in hand and read away about the terrifying tunnels of the metro until we pull up outside. When I get out of the car there is the immediate smell of silage from the field behind it. Oh how familiar this is to me. We walk in and do the necessary hand sanitizing before continuing in and glance at an elderly couple smiling up from their seats. The man seems to have his mind together, but his wife in her wheelchair looks distant, eyes glazed. I smile meekly and move on, past the other residents and wonder to myself just how much medication and antidepressants these people are taking.
As we walk towards the room the various smells come to the fore, an odd sweet smell mingled with warm food, bleach and very faint stale urine. I glance briefly into the other rooms with permanently open doors as I’m walking behind my grandmother and see some people lying on their beds, or seated in their standard issues pink leather chairs (like the hospital ones, but blue, strangely enough) and see the various cards and pictures these people have from friends and relatives. I know it was 6.30pm on a Wednesday, but it struck me that none of these elderly people had visitors with them.
Despite my love for my family, I get a sinking feeling whenever I’m about to step into her room. It’s a nice enough room, she has cards from her 90th birthday back in March on her wall. A picture of her and my great-grandfather on their wedding day sits on the windowsill to remind her of it, whenever she forgets. She was lying there on her bed, mouth agape with wheezing breath. We both say hello, and get feeble response back to us. We need to remind her of who we are, and she can’t confirm if she does know who we are because her speech has been gone since her stroke. So we watch her eyes shifting from either of us as we make conversation about our days and going about our lives, with my constant guilt and knowledge she is no longer a part of it. Yes, my grandmother and her brother go to see her every day, but at family gatherings and parties she is no longer there. She can’t move since the stroke either, and is to heavy to be lifted and transported around for any length of time. As for meals such as my 21st early this year she couldn’t have eaten anyway as her swallow has been gone for quite some time. I always wondered how it felt, being fed some nutritious custard yellow substance through a tube into your stomach. I mention that I’ll make a collage of pictures to put on her wall beside the bed where she can see it easily, uncomfortably waiting as I wait for her fit of coughing from her COPD to pass.
I feel extreme pangs of guilt whenever I remember the state she’s in even though none of the situation is my fault. I feel guilty for not seeing her more but every time I enter into that place it’s depressing. A glimpse into a possible future, near or far. I know it’s not about me, that it’s her I should be thinking about. Then I wonder, does she even know who I am? Does she remember me? The things I tell her about my recent life, my completion of college, my new partner. Her dementia was getting bad enough before she had the stroke, but when she now thinks her own daughter is her mother? It’s all a bleak mystery and we’ll never really know.
After about half an hour of talking to her (at her) about things going on with us, we get up to leave and say our goodbyes. I rub her head a few times as I gaze down at her and she says something incomprehensible to me with wide eyes. I awkwardly smile down at her and say goodbye again as I move away to the door with my grandmother, feeling even worse than before with a stinging behind my eyes. What are we leaving her to? what does she even think about if she can’t remember things? The thought deeply unsettles me.
I often wonder how my grandmother does it, going in to see her mother in that vegetative state every day. She has more strength than I give her credit for. On the way home I return to my book and quickly leave the visit from my mind before I have time to deal with the feelings that accompany it. I have faced these feelings before and I feel terrible for it, but it’s something there is not a simple solution for. So I’ll continue to be disgusted with my discomfort and quell the feelings of despair whenever they arise whenever I walk through that automatic door flanked with hand sanitizer.