September 9th, 2010

Relampago ocean

The language of dogs

My mother told me while we were at the gym this morning that my uncle reported yesterday that the dog won't leave my grandmother's side.

I immediately knew what this meant, and I almost lept out of the scissor kick excercise I was doing to give her a hug.

My 90 year old grandmother has been suffering from Alzheimer's for about five years now, and she's been steadily deteriorating. Despite her chronic lifelong hypochondria, she's been otherwise healthy. Alzheimer's is a pretty horrific disease in and of itself, though, and I am hard pressed to determine if it's worse on the patient or on those around the patient. My grandmother moved in with my uncle when she could no longer really take care of herself, and its been in the last year that she's needed round the clock care. Their community has some pretty decent social services for the elderly, and a woman named Lisa comes every day to stay with my grandmother until my uncle gets home from work.

It's been pretty hard on my mother. My grandmother can't remember a lot of details about her life, and conversations on the telephone are confusing and somewhat looping. My mother often corrects my grandmother on facts like how many children my grandmother has, how many grandchildren, etc. I think she wants to help my grandmother remember. When I talk to my grandmother, I generally let her believe whatever it is she thinks, since I think it's easier on my grandmother even if it's difficult for me to follow the conversation string. I don't expect her to remember that I'm the lawyer and no longer in school. I don't expect her to remember which disembodied voice she is talking to. Jose and my mother went to see her last spring, and both said it was pretty hard. I don't think my grandmother knew who Jose was, and she was vaguely confused about my mother, too. My mother came back from that trip a little shaken.

My uncle is a saint. He does everything he can to ensure that my grandmother is taken care of and comfortable. I don't think he's had time off from her for at least seven years, and every hour that he's not at work, he's spending on her care. I'm pretty sure that it would have been easier for her to go to a nursing home instead of living with him, but he's fought that tooth and nail and he's done a remarkably good job at it. Still, I can't imagine that this hasn't taken a massive toll on him.

Lately, I've gotten the impression that she's deteriorated faster. My mother says that the only thing my grandmother will do now is eat. She no longer reads, watches TV, does puzzles, talks with those around her. She's not quite catatonic, but pretty close. A few weeks ago, my uncle started making moves to talk to funeral homes and arranging for the church in my grandmother's hometown to get ready. My mother asked me to put the obituary together. If I can write one for Holden, I can certainly write one for my grandmother.

I think everyone is feeling a weird sense of anticipation mixed with relief mixed with guilt mixed with sadness. These last years have been really hard, and my grandmother hasn't made them easier. She's been combative and suspicious and confused and totally and completely dependent.

My uncle's dog usually waits for him by the front door to come home for work. But now, he won't leave my grandmother's side, even when my uncle calls. It was sort of strange, I thought, that all of us knew that the dog's behavior probably means my grandmother has very little time left. The dog can tell. And because the dog can tell, so can the rest of us. We just knew.

The last time I saw my grandmother was in Taos in 2003. We spent a week together there with my mother, and then she and I flew back to Houston and I helped her get on the plane to Philadelphia. I think I will next see my grandmother in the next few weeks in Pennsylvania in her coffin.