I went to visit my 93 year-old grandmother last weekend. Gaggy, as my brother named her 45 years ago, lives in Fayetteville, NC, where my mom was born and raised. I hadn’t seen her in a long time. Over a year. My mom and my brother went also, the three of us leaving behind two husbands, a wife and a total of 6 children. I can’t remember another time that the three of us had done this except when I was thirteen and my parents had decided to separate. My mom, brother and I took the Amtrak train from Miami to Fayetteville and were picked up by my grandparents. I didn’t know it at the time but one of the purposes of that trip was for my mom to tell her parents that she and my dad were getting divorced.
So, here we were. Thirty years later. Just the three of us in Fayetteville again.
My grandfather died 3 years ago, at the age of 91. Since then, Gaggy has stayed in their house but with around the clock caretakers. In the last few months, it has become apparent that her mind is changing. On a grocery store outing with one of her caretakers, Gaggy saw her sister who lives a few minutes from her. And she asked for her sister’s help because she said that she had been kidnapped.
And the change was apparent to me within the first 10 minutes after we walked in to her house. And at first this change made me incredibly sad. She was not the same Gaggy I had last seen. I was also nervous. Nervous that she might forget who I was and call me by another name. Or that she would put me down, calling me dumb, like she did to others. But she didn’t. And at times, her memory was fine, even better than fine. Remembering my husband and what he does for a living and how he had cooked shrimp for her at the beach two years ago.
Throughout the weekend, she told the most outrageous and entertaining stories. About being trapped on an island filled with criminals in New Zealand, a place she had been to with my grandfather earlier in her life. Eating fruit there and then escaping to Honolulu via a plane flown by my grandfather. She laughed this full body laugh that I did not know she had before now. She was having fun and she seemed happy.
There is really nothing physically wrong with Gaggy, except for the increasing frailty you would expect a 93 year-old woman to have. My mom and her brother have talked to her about moving to an assisted living facility. And she says she wants to go. She talks about it being more social. About having more than one person around to talk to. Having people to play Scrabble with.
Over the weekend, we went to visit the facility with her, have a tour and eat some lunch. It is a nice place, but it is the first one I have ever visited and seeing all of those old people together is depressing. I haven’t known too much of old age and I don’t like what I see. Wheelchairs and walkers everywhere. People needing help with their meals. The sanitary smell. But, within the context of being old and needing around the clock care, the place seems comfortable. The staff was kind and patient. The residents seemed well cared for and happy. They were up and out of their rooms, on their way to one activity or another.
A table was set up for us in the Solarium, a sunny area separate from the regular dining room. We were given a menu with some choices on it and the head dietician came out and talked to us. But I wasn’t very hungry. There are two situations in which I lose my appetite. One is where I have recently seen, or even thought about, a cockroach. The other is being around a lot of old people. I didn’t want to be rude, what with this being the South, so I ordered the white bean chicken chili and the tuna plate (dark meat tuna with relish served with Ritz crackers) and macaroni salad. My brother looked at me like I was crazy. He just ordered a salad. And a lemonade. And we all ordered the pineapple upside down cake. It quickly became apparent that we weren’t going to finish our meals so we cancelled the dessert order. Gaggy was getting tired, her behavior was not at its best and we still had cousins to visit before we took my brother to the airport.
The rest of the weekend went well. We looked at old pictures, had dinner with our cousins at Gaggy’s favorite Chinese restaurant and spent time, my mom, Gaggy and me, sitting on her bed Saturday night just talking. Or at least trying too. She kept seeing a man with long legs walking out in the hallway and then in her closet and under the bed. She told me he was going to get me. And I got a little spooked. After that, I said goodnight, took a sleeping pill and slept until my alarm sounded the next morning. It was early, my grandmother was not up yet, and my mom took me to the airport.
I was ready to go home. I knew going in to it that the weekend was going to be emotionally tough for me. And it was. But it was also special. And fun. Especially the time with my mom and my brother. We all slept in the same room on our first night there. My mom and I sharing the bed. My brother next to me, on the floor, on a makeshift bed of old blankets. Throwing pillows at each other, making fun of each other, laughing. Doing the kinds of things that makes our spouses marvel at our combined immaturity.
I don’t think I ever got to see Gaggy’s true self that weekend, the one I remember growing up with. The one I remember from 20 years ago or even two years ago. She is lost to me – the smart, savvy advice giving grandmother. In her place is a 93 year-old woman who is happy. Who has a maniacal laugh and a wonderful imagination combining real memories with fiction to create outrageous tales. Once I got over the fact that this was not the Gaggy I grew up with, the one who had been the artist, the politician, the community activist, I was able to enjoy the current Gaggy. Happy, a little crazy and good company.
I don’t know when my next visit to Fayetteville will be. I hope to go in the spring. Who knows what state of mind my grandmother will be in at that time but I’ll take whatever Gaggy I can get. And be happy that I still have her.