It started with a phone call. It always starts with a phone call, doesn't it? I was sleeping in late on a Thursday morning in my cute little apartment at Ball State when I woke up to hear my mom calling me. I answered the phone expecting the typical update on life and questions about mine, when I instantly knew something was wrong from the "Hey, Alex" I heard coming from my usually chipper mother. "It's grandma," she said. All I heard after that was "…she's not doing well…we're not sure…it may be fine…but maybe you should think about coming home this weekend…I love you…bye." I could hear the blood pounding in my ears as tears started streaming down my face. Before I could let my thoughts run rampant, I walked into my roommate Catherine's room where she got a sobby, choked up version of what I'd heard on the phone and immediately hugged me and said "I'm so sorry." All I could think was, "Not my grandma. Not my Grandma Jan."
I've always been close with my grandparents even before I can remember. My mom always said I developed a special bond with them during the 27 days I stayed at their house while she was in Chicago getting a bone marrow transplant and my dad was driving back and forth between his sick wife and newborn baby girl. Ever since then, I've been hooked. I loved going over to my grandparents' house. It's where we celebrated holidays with our family, ate dinner a few times a month and where I got to stay up late and eat vanilla ice cream while my parents were out with friends. Grandma Jan had always been like a second mom to me. Knowing my favorite snacks, what made me feel better when I was sick, picking me up from school when my mom worked late during football season, watching movies with me and reading to me until I fell asleep. She was one of my most favorite people, and still is to this day.
A few months before my grandfather died of lung cancer, my grandma was diagnosed with Alzheimer's. I was a sophomore in high school and had no idea what was coming. I was close with my grandfather too, but was comforted by the fact that at least my grandma was still here. At least I could still go to their house and see his ash tray, pile of bills and the TV ready to watch golf. Little did I know that she was already leaving, little bits of her disappearing each day. Lost in a fog of memories that she couldn't recover. This is when I began hating Alzheimer's.
She stayed in their house, one of my most favorite places on the entire earth, but the Alzheimer's began to take its toll. At first it was just lots of repeating. "Did you know that that Regis went to the same school as your grandfather?" "Oh really?" I'd say to her, "that is so cool!" (even though it was the 347th time she'd told me.) It then transitioned to forgetting what she was doing or where she put something. Or when I would say "Remember when…" followed by a prominent memory, she would simply respond, "No, I don't think so…" Then it moved to mixed up words and confused speech. Watching her struggle to form a sentence was torture. She knew what she wanted to say, but her brain and her mouth were not on the same page. After that, it seemed to just get exponentially worse. A few years went by and it was time to get round-the-clock care for her at home. Even though the grandkids who lived in Fort Wayne took turns spending the night, cooking breakfast and giving her her pills, she needed even more assistance than that. Shortly after that, she asked me the question (ever so politely) I'd been dreading since she had been diagnosed, "Now, I'm sorry dear, but who are you again?" I could literally hear the pieces of my heart hitting her kitchen floor. I struggled to answer her without bursting into tears, "Grandma. It's me, Alex, Linda's daughter. Remember? I'm your granddaughter." "Oh, yes, that's right," she replied, but as I looked into her eyes, I knew I was still a stranger to her. Another piece of the puzzle she could not place.
The two years before she died, she really went downhill. My mom, along with her brothers and sisters, decided it was time for her to be moved into a nursing home. Being the eternal optimist, I never thought it could get worse. Boy, was I wrong. Hearing your grandmother cry and beg like a child to be taken home to her house was the most heart wrenching thing I think I've ever experienced. She began asking where Jim (my grandfather) was and when he was coming home. She would ask for her mother who died before I was even born. She began not recognizing her own reflection in the mirror. Her sentences got shorter and shorter before she just stopped talking altogether. If she tried to respond to a question, it was usually just sounds, no clear words. When she stopped recognizing my mom and aunts and uncles, I knew there was no turning back. I prayed and wished so hard for her to have a lucid moment. It never came. I visited her in the nursing home as much as I could, but it wasn't enough. I would sit and hold her hand and tell her about my life and things I remembered from hers.
Then, on a cold day in November 2012, I got that phone call from my mom. I decided I should probably go home for the weekend. I was greeted by aunts, uncles and cousins who came from near and far. We sat in her nursing home room looking like a refugee camp. We laughed and talked, cried and remembered. We even cheered on our beloved Irish to another victory and played the fight song which she loved so much. Friends and relatives began coming to say tear-filled goodbyes even though she was no longer responsive. After that we waited. And waited. After many false alarms, she took her final breath surrounded by her loved ones in the early hours of the morning on November 19, 2012.
The funeral followed and it was the hardest goodbye I've had yet. I yearned to watch her through my five-year-old eyes again, getting ready in her dressing room -- putting on makeup, painting her nails, clothed in something fashionable (usually Liz) and finishing with a spritz of Hermès Calèche perfume, her signature scent. I begged to spend another summer with her at The Lake at their cottage in Coldwater, Michigan. I longed for one more conversation with her over breakfast. I pleaded and even bargained with God to bring her back so she could attend my college graduation, my wedding and eventually meet her future great-grandchildren. She was my last living grandparent and it broke my heart (and still does) that none of them, especially her, were going to see my life unfold.
But, I'm thankful. I'm thankful because she gave me my mom who looks, acts and loves so much like her. She gave me aunts and uncles that are always stepping up to the plate to attend a graduation or host a family holiday. She gave me cousins, my most favorite people in the world, to celebrate and go through life with. She gave me her expensive taste, undying love of chocolate and appreciation for almost every shade of blue.
So, here's to you Grandma Jan! Thanks for always making me cheese and crackers (with Grandpa's cheese, of course), leading parades for your grandkids around your and Grandpa's gorgeous house, letting us ride backward in your blue station wagon and for taking care of me and loving me as if I were your own. I will love you forever.