Thursday, January 12, 2012

Another Empty Chair at the Table

Last week when I took my grandmother to the doctor, she told me, "Ruth is sick."  Ruth was my third-grade teacher.  She and my grandmother became friends in the late 1950s/early 1960s.  They were in B&PW Club together - both "business women" in an era when there weren't very many women who worked outside the home.  Ruth had moved to the ALF several years ago, and when Mam-ma moved in, she was seated at a table in the dining area with Ruth and another friend, Ms. Evelyn.  I spoke to Ruth and Evelyn on January 2nd when I walked Mam-ma to lunch.  Both seemed well.

Ms. Evelyn, Mam-ma Polly, and my first grade
teacher, Ms. Ruth
By Thursday, January 5th, Mam-ma was telling me that Ruth was sick.  She sat at the table that evening for dinner... but she did not eat.  The next day, she was admitted to the hospital, where she died Monday morning from pneumonia.  Ruth would have been 97 on June 16th.  Mam-ma and Ms. Evelyn are heartsick.  Evelyn and Ruth were "kitty-cornered" neighbors for decades before both moving to the ALF.  Evelyn has told me over and over this week how long she and Ruth were friends - and how much she will miss her.

Monday, I went to the ALF to check on Mam-ma, and we talked at length about dying.  She is so ready - and quite frankly, she is jealous that Ruth got the jump on her!  She said, "I prayed this morning about this.  I told the LORD I'm ready to go." Then she managed to get out... "Death... frightens... me."  I asked, "Are you afraid to die?"  No, she told me... and finally I managed to discern that she is afraid of lingering... becoming comatose or "like a vegetable."  She also managed to express that she worries about those who are left.  I assured her that we will be fine... we will manage... and without her to lean on, some might even have to step up to the plate and do better!

While we talked, I realized that the last few times I have visited, Mam-ma's attire has been a little strange.  January 2nd, she had on summer white pants and a light-colored shirt. Many other visits, she has been wearing the same drab olive green pants and a multi-colored blouse.  So I went through her closet and organized some "outfits".  I asked her why she wore the same thing all the time, and she replied, blankly, "I don't know."  My grandmother has beautiful clothes.  Now that she has lost weight, she fits into all of them well.  There is no reason for her to wear the same thing every day.  Either the aides are not paying attention - or she chooses to wear the same outfit.  I tend to think it is the latter. 

So, just as I selected Timothy's daily attire, I grouped ensembles for Mam-ma - pants, shirts and a jacket.  When I returned yesterday, I partitioned her closet, leaving notes on the summer things that said, "Summer Clothes - Do Not Wear Until After March 2012".  The outfits for this winter, I labeled... "Please Help Polly Dress in These Outfits for Winter.  Thank You!"  So far, Polly has worn a new outfit each day this week. As one staff member put it, "There are people here who get paid to do laundry - there is no reason she can't wear a clean outfit every single day."  It may not seem like much, but I think it makes a difference - not only in my grandmother's appearance, but also in her attitude.  Change is good...even if it's merely your clothing!

I've been visiting more often and spending more time with my grandmother this last week or two.  One day she is up and the next she is down.  She is staying in her room more... and sleeping a lot. She is bored and depressed.  My mother is traveling, and she said she hesitates to phone, because Mam-ma has so much trouble talking on the telephone - and even getting to it to answer.  She said she would write a letter.  However, I've been having to read Mam-ma's mail to her this week, so Mom is going to e-mail the letter to me, and I will read it to her.  Once again, I see a similarity - we read to Timothy, and now we read to Mam-ma.

I told my grandmother that I have no idea when the LORD will call her home.  I know it won't be until she has accomplished all she is responsible for here... and that may be something as seemingly small as smiling at an aide or working through the grief over Ruth's death with her friend, Evelyn.  But I assured her that when the day comes, we will all be happy for her... confident she did all she was supposed to do in her lifetime - and that she is reunited with so many who loved her and have gone to heaven already.

This is a challenging time... a hurtful time, in a way I didn't really expect.  Watching two ladies who are nearly 100 years old sit and stare through their tears is both a heartache... and a blessing. I've sat in Ruth's chair a couple of times this week when I visited.  The empty chair is a constant reminder to these ladies of her absence. To realize that they are so ready to go to heaven makes the thought of losing them a little easier.  It will be a sadness... but also a relief.  They, like Ms. Ruth, will leave a rich legacy of lives well-lived. 

In the meantime, the skills and tactics I use in nurturing a 2-year-old are coming in handy as I nurture my grandmother.  Much of the frustration and stress associated with caring for Mam-ma in the last decade or more is being replaced with a new-found level of patience, compassion, and empathy. I look at some of the things she can no longer do, and I realize that, like a toddler learning to do things for the first time and often stumbling in the process, she cannot help herself much of the time.  She has outbursts and expresses frustration and confusion, just like a toddler... and I have to respond the same for both ages.  

And maybe that's why God has kept her around.  I prayed for a number of years that my grandmother would not die with us at odds with each other... leaving me with bitterness.  She can still push my buttons... but no longer in the same way as when she was "up and at 'em."  Maybe God has kept her here and allowed this decline to soften the blow. 

I apologize if my last few posts have been depressing.  This is a bittersweet season in my life.  And I suspect from comments I've been receiving that many of you are in the same boat... or you just got out!  Right on cue, God blessed me last night with a phone conversation with Timothy that totally brighten my day and reminded me of the circle of life.  Timmy told me of playing with his dinosaurs and reading books.  Then he said, "Okay, honey, I'm gonna let you go and get some sleep!"  With a "later, gator" and an "after while, crocodile" - and even an "I love you!" - he returned to play with his toys, and I hung up confident that he was happy and content... and always loved. 

I don't know when I will get to see him again - and IF I will see my grandmother tomorrow.  But I do know that God is working everything out perfectly.  And for the moment, all is well.


Heather Mundell said...

Debbie, this is a very rich and moving post. How lucky your grandmother is to have you caring for her so lovingly. May we all be so fortunate.

Debbie Robus said...

Heather, thank you so much for this kind comment. It means more than you can ever know. Thanks again!