Sunday, January 28, 2007

The path to righteousness

I have always believed that you can learn everything you need to know about a person's true character by their instanteous decisions. The things that a person will say and do when they have a split second, if that, to plan, to premeditate.

It's easy to be a good person in generically tough times. In mourning, in job loss, in illness. There are cards and visits and flowers and milkshakes and the salve we all utilize to do the right thing. And sometimes, behind these generic gestures, the sentiment is clear and true. But in an instant, when we have no time to think or breathe, the answers are tough and that require us to make a difference in a life by inconveniencing our own, to engineer a whole new kind of comfort, to say nothing at all...this is what separates the everybodys to the tight circles of somebodys. At least for me. These are the people who drop you off at the door when it's out of their way. The ones who call six months after the funeral to see how you are doing when the chaos has lifted. The ones who answer "yes" before you have even asked the questions. They may forget birthdays and holidays -- these are rarely Hallmark people. And they are few and far between.

These are the same people who do for others with no regard for their own gain. I have never seen this as personified as in the case of my husband, A, and my grandmother.

I have one living grandparent, my paternal grandmother. She is called Flo, as many grandmothers seem to be. After 40+ years of widowhood spent immersed in intense social activities like bridge and singles clubs and choirs, we received a call from the AARP telling us that her membership dues were late. Flo was never late. This lead to some belated digging, which brought forth a snowstorm of chaos - of unwashed dishes, uncleaned house, unpaid bills and near-miss driving accidents. It took serious negotiations to get Flo out of her house and into an assisted living facility. The cruel nature of early onset dementia is the fact that the victim rarely senses a problem. So a family swoops in, with poorly concealed tears and concern, but nothing feels wrong to the person it is happening to.

But there was something very wrong with Flo - who was hallucinating and creating stories. She was hysterical in her assertions, such as the time she believed that my husband stole her car. Now she wasn't totally off, since we were considering using her car, but she believed that A had come to her house, taken her keys, and driven away. He was my husband of barely a year. I was surprised that HE did not drive away.

In the years since, Flo has declined and plateaued. She made some peace with her new home, after agreeing that it was the "best place for her". But the uphill battles have changed. Her short term memory is gone, which means that she is easily offended by forgetting information that she wants to know and was just told to her. She still creates things that do not exist, which can send her reeling and leave us scrambling for excuses as to why she ever thought this or that. It is not unlike the movie "50 First Dates", because we are constantly starting over, even in the same conversation, over and over. She refuses to change her skirt, because it seems new to her every day, despite the filth and the wear and tear. She had always dressed to the nines, and one of the most obvious effects of themental illness is her attachment to the same clothes, which leave her so uncharacteristically unkempt.

Phone calls and visits to my grandmother are immediately forgotten by her. So many of us make the call, pay the visit, because it is "the right thing to do", and it will somehow buy us points with another person. But in this case, the gesture occurs in a vacuum with limited lasting effect. It is a great undertaking. The calls can be maddening, the repetions, the false assertions. The visits are even more difficult. They require a great deal of physical strain to lift my now obese grandmother into a car to get to the diner. Her hygiene issues are unsettling. She often complains about having to go. But it remains important, to us, and on some level, we need to believe that it is still important to her.

My husband, A, is the one who limitless patience for Flo. He initiates many phone calls. Her handles every part of our trips with her to Friendly's. He holds her frail hand, tightens her seatbelt over her expanse. He jokes and flirts. She is crazy about him and he lavishes her with attention. "How's my boyfriend?" she asks me about him. "If I were a little bit younger, you'd have a run for your money."

After our outings, he walks her to the door after the trip. He hugs her despite the dirty shirt and unwashed hair. As if he was her own. There are few moments when I believe I am in the presence of righteousness, but when I am with A and my grandmother, I am reminded of the righteous man I married. For these visits, these calls, these gestures are vapor in an instant to Flo. But the intent to me is everlasting.


At 9:44 PM PST, Anonymous Leigh said...

Grandmas - I learned to late how close I was to mine.

Nannie was, per usual, at (my aunt) Linda's with all of us for Christmas dinner. When Jane and Linda took her home later that evening, she informed her nursing home roommmate that she was "starving" because she hadn't eaten "in hours." Sure you haven't, Nan.

Sigh. I miss her so much - despite the accusations and especially given her endless flirtation with my man, whom she called my "fella."



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