Grandfather, caregiver.

[From April 16, 2018: Lessons from one of the humans I have loved most in this world.]

During the last years of my paternal grandmother’s life, her mind ravaged by the cruel joke of Alzheimer’s, my grandfather served as her primary caregiver. He would have it no other way, he always made clear, because he’d long ago made a promise to his bride of nearly seven decades. While he did eventually accept some help during the day in the form of visiting home health care workers, it was important to him that my grandmother stay in their home, where he felt he could protect her from many of the indignities of her disease. I worried a lot about my grandfather during that time because the toll it was taking on his elderly body was undeniable. Frankly, there were times when I worried we’d lose him before her. Often, when the home health care workers were at the house during the day, he’d come down to my office, where he’d read the paper or take a nap at his desk in the office we still keep for him. He always had a story for the ladies in the office, too, whether it was how he’d learned to “make cookies from scratch” (my staff knew the cookies in question were really the slice & bake variety, but they always played along) or a yarn he’d spin about the way my grandmother just wouldn’t stop shamelessly flirting with him, his story usually involving my grandmother pinching him on the ass (something she never would have done, before or after the Alzheimer’s). Occasionally a true story would slip through the cracks to offer a peek behind the curtain of living with someone who was slowly forgetting your life together, but he never complained. He never talked about how hard it was to watch that terrible disease unfold, how physically exhausting it was to wake his 80-something year old body in the middle of each and every night to see if his beloved needed to use the restroom (or, more likely, if she already had), or how hurtful it must have been to have people turn away or stop visiting her. He cared for my grandmother until the day she died, though, honoring his promise to her even after she’d long forgotten him making any such pledge.

I wonder about that time in my grandfather’s life a lot these days, not just because he’s now in his mid-90s and I know we will lose him sooner than any of us are prepared for, but I find myself thinking a lot about the way he cared so dutifully for my grandmother. I wonder about the things he gave up, the way it physically weighed on him so heavily, and the parts of himself that still must hurt over memories I doubt he’s shared with anyone. In my own experience, I know that for every difficult moment of Chelli’s illness I’ve shared, there are painful instances I’ve never verbalized, as well as a host of hurts & fears that I haven’t allowed to make their way into my conversations with concerned loved ones. I can only imagine that my grandfather has the same sort of emotional shrapnel lurking just below the surface.

One of the things I have started to talk about recently, though, is an acknowledgment of the depression I’ve allowed to slowly creep in and take root. I used to believe — back when my understanding of depression was limited to something afflicting bored housewives in bad after-school movies — that to be “depressed” was simply to be sad for a sustained period of time. In my mind, it wasn’t the same as my normal “charming” melancholy, but something more severe… and, with more than a hint of disdain, something more pathetic, tinged with the sort of haughty judgment that materializes when we lack a personal frame of reference.

For the last few months, whenever someone has asked how I’m doing, my standard “truthful” answer has almost always been, “I’m just exhausted.” I am tired, it’s true, due in no small part to my ridiculously unhealthy sleeping habits (where I don’t). But it’s more than merely being tired. I feel physically weighed down, like I’m constantly swimming through a dense emotional fog with weighted sandbags hanging from my limbs, making even the smallest task — getting out of bed, brushing my teeth, etc. — seem overwhelming. Last week, I finally talked to my doctor about it. I wasn’t sure, but “maybe,” I said, I might be dealing with some depression. He handed me a questionnaire with a half dozen questions asking for a rating from 1 (not at all) to 5 (constant, every day). After the second question, I handed it back. “Okay, scratch the ‘maybe’ bullshit, doc.”

I still see my grandfather about once a week. For the last couple years, almost without failing, he has opened each interaction by asking about Chelli, usually some version of, “is she feeling better yet?” Sometimes I give him specifics — details of a new treatment plan or a pending surgery — but most of the time, I just say, “things are about the same, grandpa.” Finally, a month or two ago, I sat him down when he asked, looked him in the eye, and said, “I don’t think she’s going to get better, grandpa.” He didn’t say anything in response; he didn’t have to. Part of me wanted to ask him a thousand questions about how he managed the daily realization that my grandmother wasn’t going to get better, either. I wanted to tell him that as terrified as I am of losing her, I’m also terrified of this current hell lasting for another decade. What will become of us then? Did he ever feel that way? Did he understand? I didn’t ask any of those questions, because I could see it all in his teary eyes. I’m well aware that I might have been projecting a lot into that moment, reading something into the nonverbals of 94-year old that weren’t actually there, maybe even mistaking a few tears for deep understanding. But I will take comfort where I can find it. And on that day, I found a spot of comfort in an old man’s eyes.

My beloved grandparents, with a whole lifetime ahead of them. | 1940

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