On My Grandmother’s Decline

I’ve written very little on the subject of my grandmother recently. In truth, there’s been very little to say. Two weeks ago, I thought she wouldn’t last a month. It could be longer than that. She is nearing the end, though.

The thing about my grandmother’s decline is the way her mental age seems to unwind. She can have moments of great clarity where she’s an adult, and she’s frightening in those moments because she becomes very aware that she isn’t right. (I react to her differently in those moments, too; in those moments of clarity, I treat her with great sadness at what she’s lost and what she’s become.) Five years ago, I’d have said that, in general, her mental age was that of a ten year-old. Two years ago, I’d have said she was mentally three. Today, she’s perhaps mentally one.

I’m a witness to Flowers for Algernon, I suppose.

Within the last six weeks, my grandmother has found a new mental state — catatonia. She becomes unable to move herself. Her awareness of things moving about her is not unlike that of an infant’s; she can track something with her eyes but there’s no sign of recognition in them, she can be engaged in conversation but what emerges is a random babble of English syllables that may not conform to anything, she becomes restless and her hands and fingers float and twitch in the air. Her face also looks different in those catatonic states; it becomes a caricature of itself, elongated and somehow narrower, the jaw jutting out and the mouth agape to a noticeable degree. These states can last for a day or two, and for all that time she seems little more than like an infant trapped in a ninety-year-old’s body.

A few years ago, my dad and I were sitting outside talking. “What does it say about us as a society that we treat our pets with more dignity at the end of their lives than we treat our elderly? What does it say about our priorities that we make sure our pets have a better quality of life at the end than our parents and grandparents do?” I asked. In another life, my dad might have been a Jesuit theologian, and even he didn’t have an answer — “Who decides?” As the years have passed, he has come around to my view, that human civilization’s inability to grapple with dignity and meaning in the end of life is a sad indictment of humanity’s failures of compassion.

Today has been one of my grandmother’s catatonic days. I had to replace the digital converter box on her television while she watched The Price Is Right, and I don’t think she ever registered my presence in the room with her. I fixed some lunch — a can of Chef Boyardee (Fat Free) Beef Ravioli — and gave her some; she didn’t even touch it. She’s taking a nap now.

Her end is coming. I don’t know when. But it’s coming. And soon.

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