Five Years After My Grandmother’s Funeral…

Facebook reminded me this morning that five years ago today was my grandmother’s funeral, just as on Saturday morning it reminded me that she passed away a hemidecade ago.

I knew this was coming; a few weeks ago Facebook showed me pictures from Shore Leave 2011 (including John de Lancie and an experiment in making Irish Carbombs at the bar in the Hunt Valley Inn with the limited drinkware available), and she passed away about two weeks after that.

I wrote some remarks to deliver at the service.  The delivery… did not go well.

Those who were there saw it unfold.  Those who were not… well, I’ve never talked about it.

The anguish and pain born of years of close proximity to my grandmother’s decline uncorked and came pouring out in a high-pitched whine and an outpouring of tears that I tried to choke back and failed as I stood at the podium.  A sister said to me later that she had no idea what to do at the moment, that she wanted to “rescue” me.  There was no place to “rescue” me to, though.  It had to come out, and the torrent of sound and fury was probably a truer account of my feelings than any of the anodyne remarks I’d written.

Though there is something to be said for marmalade.

Back at the house that afternoon, a blisteringly hot day as I recall, my dad said something to me in the kitchen, an anecdote about a World War I veteran, that I’ll try to paraphrase.

He’d seen my reaction before.  When he was younger, in college, I think, he attended a talk with a veteran of the Battle of Jutland.  (For those not historically inclined, Jutland was the only major naval battle of World War I, fought between Britain and Germany.  Britain technically “won” the battle in that the Germans retreated back to port and didn’t seriously challenge the Royal Navy again, but both sides took tremendous — and on Britain’s side, obscene — losses in the battle.) And this veteran had, in the course of talking about the experience, broken down in much the same way I had as, in talking about what he’d seen, the memories came flooding back and the things that he had pushed aside — the sounds, the smells, the fire and the carnage, the screams, the explosions and the silence — became present and overwhelming for him again.  There are things that no one should ever have to witness, there are traumas that no one should ever have to carry, and the weight of those things are sometimes too much for the soul to bear.  These things don’t have to involve wars or cruelty or death.  Pain takes many forms.  He understood.

You’d have thought I’d have worked through the emotions by then.  My grandmother had been dying for a long time.  Her mind died long before her body expired.  But life is complicated, and the feelings we have and carry about that life are complex.  Five years after her body went into the ground, there are some feelings from that time that are still unresolved — and may always be unresolved.  I wonder at times if there were a better way.

Looking Back Ten Years

Ten years ago today, an adventure (of sorts) began.

My grandmother and I took a trip from Baltimore to Raleigh.

I’ve never really spoken about that trip as I’ve found it an uncomfortable — and somewhat painful — subject.

My grandmother, as some know, suffered from dementia in her final years.  At the time of this trip, her doctor had given her six months to live.  She would live, instead, for another six years.

We stopped in Richmond for dinner.  We had been on the road for five hours at that point (summer traffic was terrible), and I had to feed her.  We stopped at the Aunt Sarah’s Pancake House on Broad Street.  At the time there were two on Broad Street; there was one closer to the city (and this one is still open), and one further out on Broad Street, closer to the University of Richmond campus.

My grandmother thought Broad Street was Reisterstown Road.  She thought she was still near Baltimore.

Our waiter was a young man named Nick.  Somehow, in conversation, my grandmother brought up her belief that she was in her favorite restaurant on Reisterstown Road, and it came up that Nick, too, was from Baltimore.  Thankfully, he said nothing to puncture her illusion that she was in the Baltimore environs.  I genuinely don’t know what would have happened at that point if he had.  Nothing good, I’m sure of it.  She truly believed she and I were driving around Baltimore, and I would learn in the six years to come that she handled poorly any time reality intruded on her fantasy.

There was nothing about the dinner that was memorable.  I had a pancake platter of some sort, probably the Banana Nut pancakes.  My grandmother had something with mashed potatoes and green beans, and she didn’t eat much of it.  The bill came to about twenty dollars.  I left forty on the table, thanks to Nick for not demolishing my grandmother’s illusion.

Dinner finished, we set out again on the road.

Once we crossed the James she snapped out of her fantasy.  There were signs along the highway that read Rocky Mount.  She had grown up in Rocky Mount, North Carolina, and she knew from decades of life that Rocky Mount was nowhere near Baltimore.

She had chattered inanely for the first five hours of our trip.  Those final three hours, from the time she snapped out of her fantasy and demanded that I take her back to Baltimore (to which I said, curtly, that I wouldn’t) until the moment I pulled into the driveway in Raleigh, she said nothing at all.  We drove on in silence.  The radio wasn’t even on.

I didn’t realize that day how much my life would change.  No one ever does; it’s only when one’s life has changed and headed off in a different direction that it’s apparent what’s happened.  Things were in motion that year — EB Games had been bought by GameStop (though those changes wouldn’t fully go into effect until early 2006), a job at EB I’d applied for (and a career path that really interested me) evaporated as a result of the buy-out, my grandmother came to Raleigh, I wrote “Make-Believe.”  The big change, in my honest estimation, was my grandmother, as I would end up leaving Raleigh altogether and moving to Baltimore to help my parents take care of her.  I didn’t expect to stay in Baltimore six months, yet here I am still nine years later; my parents moved away and I stayed for a job that I’m good at and generally enjoy, though it does wear me down.

I know there were good moments and happy moments in those final years with her.  The moments that come to mind, though, are often strange and surreal and frustrating and sad.  My feelings remain complicated, I’m not always sure that I liked her, I can’t dismiss the thought that there should have been another way, and yet there are times that I miss her.

I would encounter Nick once more.  In November of 2005, I traveled up to Baltimore to check the pilot light on the gas furnace in my grandmother’s house.  On the trip back, I stopped again at Aunt Sarah’s, and Nick was again my server.  I was tired, and in a faraway voice I said to him, before he could introduce himself, “Your name is Nick, you’re from Baltimore, and you’ve worked here for several months at least.”

“Yes,” he said, taken somewhat aback.  “How did you know that?”  He probably thought the worst, that he had waited on me and given me bad service.

“You were kind to my grandmother,” I said quietly.  “We were traveling, we stopped here for dinner.  You talked to her.  You were kind to her.”

“Oh,” he said.  His sense of relief was palpable.  He smiled and took my order.  Probably a pancake platter.  Probably the Banana Nut pancakes.

There were Saturdays where my parents would go away — to craft fairs, to wineries, to whatnot.  I would sometimes go down to the McDonald’s down the street and order two plain cheeseburgers to go.  I would eat one, my grandmother would eat the other.  No, she would demolish the cheeseburger while watching a television show she could barely follow.  I’d hide the wrappers when she was done.  Saturday cheeseburgers, that was our little secret.

There.  A happy memory, one that came about because, ten years ago today, my grandmother and I took a trip from Baltimore to Raleigh.

On My Grandmother’s Car

My grandmother’s boat of a car is gone.

It was a mid-90s Ford Crown Victoria.  No, scratch that.  I’ve just looked at pictures.  It was a late-80s Crown Victoria, probably about 1986 or 1987.

I don’t know the last time my grandmother drove it.  She didn’t drive it after summer 2005.  That’s when the transmission in it blew out on the Delaware Memorial Bridge; my mom took my grandmother to Atlantic City that summer, and she insisted they take her car.  My parents occassionally drove it after that (the transmission was replaced, obviously), but it hasn’t moved from the driveway since 2007.

In 2007, my dad had the ignition changed so she couldn’t start it, and he kept the keys someplace where she’d never find them — in his car.  She would occasionally go outside and look at the car.  She’d touch it, and she wouldn’t notice the dirt and grime as it built up.  Not long after my dad had the ignition changed, she popped the hood and insisted that someone had stolen the car battery.  She threatened to call the police.  It sounds amusing, but it really wasn’t.

The Crown Victoria is in the Google Maps pictures of the house, which were dated to November 2007.  (There are three Christmas wreaths on the front of the house, and the house that was torn down across the street a few years ago is still standing.) It’s also in the overhead view, which I’m going to say was sometime in summer 2010 (based on things like the foliage and the house standing across the street).

It sat so long in the same place in the parking lot that it actually caused the asphalt in the driveway to sink.  There are four tire-shaped ruts in the driveway where the boat sat.

It was towed away today.  It’s gone.

I won’t miss it.

On My Grandmother’s Cat

My grandmother’s cat is gone.

Yes, my grandmother had a cat.  He had no name.  She called him many things.  He was usually just “Kitty” or “Buddy” or “Little Guy.”

My grandmother hated him and she loved him.  She could scream at him for no reason at all, and then be deathly worried about him five minutes later.  She wouldn’t touch him, the most she would ever do would be to rub him with her foot.

For a number of reasons, none to do with him and all to do with her, he didn’t have free run of the house when she was alive.  In the times that he did escape the confines of the basement, he liked to sleep on my grandmother’s bed.  There was never any sunlight there, my grandmother’s bedroom (which she actually didn’t use until her final year) was never anything but gloomy, so I never understood why he slept there.  To be honest, if she were on the couch and I found the cat on the bed, I would let the cat stay.  Someone needed to get some use out of the bedroom, after all.

He was mainly an outdoor cat, though, largely because he couldn’t have free run of the house.

I could write a long dissertation on my grandmother’s behavior towards cats.  This isn’t really the place for that.

He’s been gone since Monday.

I tell myself it’s just a few days, and cats do things like this.  He was gone for a week during and after Blizzardammerung, and that was his own stupid fault.

And yet, there’s a cloud of gloom dogging my heel.  I looked at his food dish this evening, and I felt devastated.

Don’t misunderstand.  He was a useless cat.  He refused to be held.  He was very friendly, he liked to be petted, my niece liked him.  But he showed no affection, and he slept all day.  Even when he wanted to come inside, he frequently wanted someone to come outside, pick him up, and carry him in.  He was useless, and for a cat, that says a lot.

I keep hoping he’ll turn up.  That I’ll be in the kitchen, fixing breakfast, and he’ll be sitting outside, in his spot atop the tarp under the magnolia tree, ready to come in.

Hope.  It’s all I really have.

On My Grandmother’s Death and Funeral

Last Saturday morning, July 23rd, my grandmother passed away.

It was not a surprise.  Her health, especially mentally but in recent months physically as well, had been in decline for years, and in the spring I knew her end would arrive soon.

She was unaware of things at the end.  She went in peace.

The morticians did a wonderful job.  At the end she no longer looked human.  It may sound disrespectful, but even Gollum in The Lord of the Rings movies looked more human than she did.  Though my mother planned for a closed casket service and no viewing, the morticians made her look almost normal.

The funeral service was Wednesday morning.

It was a nice service, and the minister had a lovely singing voice.

I was asked on Monday to say a few words at the service, and I wrestled with what to say.  If you’ve read some of my previous blog posts on my grandmother, you may know that I had some complicated feelings on the subject; this post from April 2009 is a prime example.  My grandmother was a difficult person to love.  She could be emotionally cruel.  But she was also someone who engendered loyalty and friendship in those who knew her, and she had relationships that stood for decades.  People are complicated.  My grandmother was a complicated person.  I struggled with what to say; honesty about my grandmother and her personality would not have been the right thing to say.

I had a breakthrough, though.  A realization.  I wrote it down, I thought it was clever, I thought it was interesting, and, most important, I thought it was meaningful.  It was honest.  And, more important, it was optimistic.

Unfortunately, I didn’t realize how emotionally freighted it was.  As I went to deliver my remarks Wednesday morning, I had a total meltdown.  I hadn’t realized that writing a thing was a different thing than speaking the same thing.  Something that I could type merrily away was so emotionally close that trying to say it was devastating.

My sister wanted to rescue me from the podium as I was having a meltdown.  I got through it, and as I kept going, it became easier.

I even got to deliver a joke line — “My grandmother makes a very persuasive case for the marmelade and toast diet.”

The internment was nice as well.

The turnout was low.  Partly, it’s due to the fact that my grandmother outlived almost everyone.  Friends and relatives would die, and she would go on, she would endure.

It’s been a hectic week.

In some ways, it feels like my grandmother passed away just yesterday.  At times in the past seven days, I’ve found myself looking in on her room to see how she is.

In other ways, it feels like she’s been gone a very long time.

She’s at rest now.  She no longer suffers from the ravages of dementia and old age.  I can’t see that as a bad thing.

Ninety years, six months, twenty-nine days is a good run.

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.

On Morning with my Grandmother

My grandmother doesn’t appear to have gotten any sleep last night.

I locked the house up, shut off the tree, and went to bed.  The television was still on, however; she usually sleeps through the night with it on, so it made sense not to mess with it.

When the alarm went off, I heard the television on.  Not surprising.

I went downstairs.  My grandmother was sitting up on the couch.  Her expression is difficult to describe.  Shock, perhaps.  Anger?  Concern?  I couldn’t tell.  She was watching the news.

The kitchen door was unlocked.  The kitchen lights were on.  The faucet was running.  Oh, and the tree in the living room was on.

I put coffee on.  Shut off the faucet.  Grabbed a breakfast muffin.

I went back into the living room.  The light from the lights on the tree and the television cast strange shadows on her face.

She turned, looked up, and stared at me.

“What’s wrong?” I said.

“I can’t find Donald,” she said.  “He might be stuck in the snow.”  The news was showing a traffic report, about how the weekend’s snowfall might affect the morning commute.

Her husband has been dead for ten years.

She hasn’t made that “mistake” in a long time.  She talks about her father constantly, most recently when my sister came to visit a few weeks ago, where my grandmother decided that she was going to leave and go to stay with her father a few days.  Her father has been dead since a month before I was born.

I waited a few minutes, poured myself a cup of coffee, and hoped that the morning’s delusion would blow over.

It’s all I could do, really.

On the Day After

The snow began falling at 10 o’clock Friday night.

Work, last week, being what it was, prompted a number of us at the office to go to the local Irish pub after work.  At the time, the forecast was calling for about twelve inches of snow.  At the pub, one of the graphic designers passed around her cell phone — the latest forecast was between twenty-four and thirty-six inches.

When I went home Friday night, for fun I went for a walk through one of Baltimore’s neighborhoods.  I wanted to see the rowhouses decorated at night, trees decorated and lit in the windows.  It was chilly, but the bracing air was refreshing, even as bundled up as I was in a heavy woolen coat.  Street lights illuminated the gloom, and the uneven sidewalk, made of brick, gave the neighborhood an old-fashioned, antiquated feeling.

I could tell, just from the lights of downtown reflecting on the sky, that heavy clouds lay overhead.  The snow would arrive, perhaps momentarily.

It arrived at ten.

My grandmother spent Saturday morning watching one of the local television channels and their storm coverage.  It was all they showed.  Reporters standing here, reporters standing there, footage of snow falling, footage of cars spinning their tires, Dopler radar maps.  My grandmother was captivated by this coverage.  She didn’t realize that it was snowing here, that the news coverage was about this storm.  When she looked out the windows, she thought it was fog she saw.

Snow continued to fall throughout the day.  I could watch, from my office desk, as snow piled up on the roof outside my bedroom window.  A picnic table and a stump out the dining room window had massive piles of snow on top, and those mounds grew.  The base of the stump vanished as the snow fell.  The steps on the kitchen stoop disappeared, first the bottom step, then the second, until the snow was level with the base of the door.

I would look out the front door from time to time.  The main road was white throughout the day.  Cars would drive past the house — very very few in the morning, but more later in the afternoon and evening — and I thought that the cars were taking the road far too fast.

Somewhere past seven, the snowfall ceased.

Officially, Baltimore received something like twenty-one inches.  The seventh highest snowfall on record.  This one snowfall was larger than Baltimore’s annual average snowfall (nineteen inches).

(The largest snowfall on record in Baltimore, by the way, is the snowfall that snowed in Farpoint about five years ago.  That was twenty-eight and a half inches officially.)

It’s sunny.  The road is clear.  The driveway is not.  The snow outside the bedroom window seems more compact than last night.  There’s been a little melting today.

I’m congested in the sinuses today.  It’s irksome.  Sneezy and phlegmy.

Today feels wintry and Christmassy.  I feel like listening to cello music.

On Fixing the Phone

Thursday night I stood in the kitchen, and I heard something.

It sounded like music.  It sounded like the kind of music the Nintendo or the Super Nintendo would have made back in the day.  But where was it coming from?  What could be making it?

I turned my head this way and that, wandered in lazy circles trying to fix its location, trying to triangulate the sound.

I decided it was the phone.  But it couldn’t have been the phone; the phone didn’t make music like this.

I picked up the receiver off the base.  The music continued.  I stared at the receiver, wondering if perhaps there might be some sort of visual notation — a flashing light, perhaps? — that the phone was, in fact, ringing.

I had no clue.

I answered the phone, put the receiver to my ear.

“Hello?” I said tentatively.

“Hello, Allyn,” came a voice from the other end.

I was confused.  The phone hadn’t been ringing, at least not as I understood it.

Had I not been so confused by the strange, 8-bit music, I might’ve recognized the voice on the other end as my sister.  Of course, it was a really mental week; I claim mental exhaustion. ;)

But what had happened to the very normal ringtone of the phone.  What was the strange music it made?

I had no idea.  All I knew was that someone, somehow had changed the phone’s ringtone.

I studied the handset and the base of the phone.  I saw nothing that indicated a way to change the ringtone.  But I had to change the ringtone; the music was annoying.

I went online this morning and downloaded the manual for the phone from Panasonic.  The instructions were cryptic.  And, once I puzzled out how to change the ringtone, I understood how it had been changed.

The ringtone is changed through the volume buttons on the handset.  It wasn’t difficult to imagine that my grandmother had picked up the handset, perhaps because it was ringing, pressed a volume button, and then pressed one of the numbers on the handset.  This would have changed the ringtone.

The ringtone has been fixed.  It’s now a chirping tone that sounds like you expect a phone to sound.  One of the other musical options was Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons (“Spring,” to be exact), and while I like The Four Seasons (I have the version that has Patrick Stewart reading the poems that Vivaldi wrote to go along with the music, which are rarely used today), that ringtone would grow quickly wearisome.

On Christmas Shopping for my Grandmother

Today, I bought Christmas presents for my grandmother.

Buying presents for my grandmother is difficult because it is pointless.  Anything important is lost upon her, anything useful would go unused.  Her birthday, which falls on Christmas Eve, is even more difficult; she understands that the day is someone‘s birthday, but she cannot recollect that it is hers.

A few years ago, I hit upon the solution.

Practical things.  Like coffee mug and tea sets.

You see them in big box retailers this time of year.  Two, or four, coffee mugs, packaged in a nice gift box.  Maybe they come with tea.  Maybe they come with cookies.  Maybe they come with coffee or hot chocolate.

I buy the sets for the coffee mugs.  She can have the tea or the coffee or the cookies.  What I need are the coffee mugs.

You see, I’ve discovered that coffee mugs are migratory creatures, like toothbrushes and razors and toothpaste.  Coffee mugs are always disappearing, taking flight and moving on to a different clime somewhere else entirely.  Thus, I repopulate the coffee mug gaggle, and the migratory habits of coffee mugs do not inhibit my coffee intake.

I also buy my grandmother cheap candies.  Maybe mints.  Maybe chocolate sticks.  I can wrap them, and she will have three or four things to unwrap Christmas morn.

She unwraps things slowly on Christmas morning.  She doesn’t realize she has things to unwrap.  She tries to save them for later.

I went to Big Lots today, and I bought her the practical things, spending less than ten dollars.  I tell myself that I should feel bad, that I spend so little on her Christmas.  Yet, I would feel bad if I spent any more than that; I would simply be wasting money and effort on something that, for good or ill, is ultimately unimportant.

I’ll wrap them in a few days.