44: Love Is the Answer

44: Love Is the Answer

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Living with Alzheimer's & Other Dementias

Love Is the Answer

Be completely humble and gentle;
Be patient, bearing with one another in love.

~Ephesians 4:2

My mother-in-law, whom I called Grandma for twenty-five years, was a true Southern mom. Cooking was a gift she gave her family daily. The meals were routine — sausage gravy with biscuits, fried chicken, salmon patties, and chicken-fried steak. If you wanted fried potatoes or any of the above at midnight, she would make them with a smile on her face. The moment her feet hit the floor, the bacon and eggs hit the pan. This was her routine every morning, despite the fact that she lived alone for forty years. Widowed at age forty-five, she chose never to date again. There was only one love in her life — her husband of twenty-four years and the father of her two sons.

Unfortunately, Alzheimer’s disease stole Grandma’s independence. When she was no longer able to live alone, my husband and I agreed to ask her to stay with us. We made this decision with some misgivings, as we realized our own freedom would be limited. But Grandma’s freedom had been taken from her forever by Alzheimer’s.

When Grandma came to live with us, my husband and I decided to keep her bacon and egg routine going. On the first morning, my feet hit the floor early and into the kitchen I went. The bacon had just started to sizzle, the wonderful aroma filling the air, when I heard a voice from behind. “Good morning, Nancy, I’m here!”

Looking up, my eyes met Grandma’s. And looking back at me were eyes as black as black could be. She had gone to bed with white, sparse eyebrows, and now she had eyebrows like Groucho Marx. Apparently she had done her make-up with a hidden Marks-A-Lot marker rather than Maybelline, to create lasting color around her eyes.

Of course, I didn’t say a word about it. Reassurance and security are things my mother-in-law needs daily. Jingle bells, secured to her walker, alert us to her wanderings. Some nights we awaken to every light on in the house as she jingles her way into our bedroom. Peering in, she sweetly asks, “Are you there?”

We gently reassure her and she returns to bed. Sometimes a kiss and tucking-in is all she needs. Other nights my husband must awaken fully and talk with her to calm her.

Grandma takes full responsibility for her dog, Happy. We no longer count the number of times we answer her question, “Where’s Happy? Happy can’t get out, can he?” One night I heard her feeding Happy at 3 a.m. The next morning, I found birdseed in his dish. She has lived with us almost two years now, yet often looks at us quizzically and says, “I had a nice time, but Happy and I need to get home.”

There are times I become frustrated — when her clothes are dirty, or her Depends need changing, yet she remains unaware. It’s then my eyes go to the photographs on her bedroom wall and my impatience softens. I see a beautiful young wife, vacationing with her husband in Colorado, wearing a starched blouse and a skirt, with hose and pumps. That lady is still in there. On good days we still see her.

Grandma occupies her time doing word searches, looking after Happy, watching movies with me or Rangers baseball with her son. On good days she cannot get enough to eat and whatever I cook is met with, “This is my favorite.” We are blessed, as she is easy to please and remains in good spirits (most of the time). After all, we all have our moments, don’t we?

Well-meaning friends and family members are the first to ask about our new roles as caregivers. We tell them we have learned a lot over the past two years. We have put into practice the words of wisdom I learned as a nurse and a flight attendant: “Put on your own oxygen mask before assisting others.”

As caregivers, we take time out to pursue what we enjoy. We visit with family and find sitters to stay with Grandma. We enjoy gardening, reading, writing, walking our dog, Zoey, or simply going out for coffee. We commit to taking care of ourselves.

It has been a challenge to grasp Grandma’s hand and walk confidently with her through these last pages of her life. We keep our eyes open to see the blessings she brings into our days and the wisdom she shares along the way. After all, there are still things she can teach us… like who knew a Marks-A-Lot would give far more lasting color than Maybelline?

As each day closes, Grandma sits on her bed, reading and rereading cards sent by her sons, granddaughters, grandsons, and daughters-in-law. Looking up as I say goodnight, she whispers, “Remember, love is the answer.”

~Nancy King Barnes

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