Holding My Breath

Last year, about this time, Nathan’s grandfather took ill. He was 95 1/2 years old, and he had been healthy up until that point. He declined rapidly, and we journeyed to South Dakota in February for his funeral. It was hard to say good-bye, but was softened by the knowledge that he’d lived a long, full life.

This January, my grandmother, The Lovely Nana, is in her final days. She was diagnosed with dementia several years ago, and her memories were stolen from her by this disease gradually. The death of her only daughter increased the speed at which she lost those memories, and she wound up moving in with my parents for 18 months. When it was becoming clear that they would no longer be able to care for her appropriately, she moved to a nursing home.

Visiting Nana was difficult during all of this. The woman I knew when I was a little girl — physically active (she walked almost every day for years), witty, a voracious reader, sharp-as-a-tack, letting no trick get past her — slowly slipped away from us. To be sure, it was still Nana, but as her memories faded from her own mind, she became very unsure of herself and of her surroundings. One of the hardest things was to hear her talk about how she knew she wasn’t remembering things well any more. Sometimes I wished she could forget that she used to remember things, that she would forget that she was forgetting everything. Maybe that would give her some peace, reduce her mounting frustrations.

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We went to celebrate her 95th birthday in October, and she was so very small. She seemed to enjoy the party, though we kept having to remind her that it was for her. She ate cake and let her family take selfies with her. She asked me twice how old she was, commenting at one point, “I must be at least 40 by now!” She didn’t seem to quite understand that the men and women gathered around her were her children and grandchildren, but she at least was in a good mood.

It’s been so very difficult to hear about her health problems since then. Being unable to keep balance to stand or walk, being in pain from multiple falls, looking at pictures of her own wedding and not recognizing anyone in the photographs.

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But I’ll be remembering Nana as I knew her when I was a girl, not this way. I’ll remember the lady who would sneak quarters to my sister and I, shushing us and commanding us to not tell Mom and Dad that she gave it to us, then shooing us out the door to Shotsy’s Dime Shop to spend our money on penny candies. I’ll remember sitting at the fold-up table with the cousins for Thanksgiving dinner at her home in Floral Park, NY, and when she would let me skip my least-favorite part of dinner and still get desserts. I’ll remember how she took care of her mentally retarded sister when their parents died. How she cried the morning of her funeral because Aunt Margie always told her that when she got to Heaven, she’d ask God to make it snow as a sign for her sister. Nana woke up to find a fresh coat of snow on the ground that day. I’ll remember her home as a place of fun and spoiling and love.

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I’ll remember when she moved with Grandpa to Toms River, just a few minutes away, to a retirement community. How she was in the theater group for a little while, but then decided she wanted to be an EMT and trained for it. She did that for more than 20 years! When our family moved to Florida just before the end of the school year, she and Grandpa took my sister and I in for two months. When I wrecked my car during these two months, hers was the ambulance that arrived on the scene, and she worried over me and then helped me find and purchase a new car. I’ll remember how she lectured me for using bad language, explaining that ladies don’t resort to that kind of thing. (She was right, even though I didn’t see it for years — maybe decades!)

I’ll remember how she went to Ireland with her oldest son — a dream of hers — and not only found the house her father was born in, but long-lost cousins and aunts and uncles. And how she shocked them all when she told them she was Catholic! (Her father had been Protestant.) I’ll remember her stubborn character, probably handed down from her Irish ancestors, and how my grandfather’s favorite film was The Quiet Man because Maureen O’Hara reminded him of his beautiful, fiery, stubborn wife. I’ll be remembering how, for years, she travelled alone all over the US to visit her children and grandchildren.

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I’ll always remember how she would always insist on helping us pay for travel expenses when we went to see her. How she was always giving things away if you admired it, and how I was always afraid to tell her I liked anything in her home, for fear that she’d just hand it over to me on the spot.

I’ll remember how my friends went to Rome for the canonization of Father Damien and brought back a Rosary for her that had been blessed by the pope. I presented it to her for her 90th birthday. Of all the things that belonged to her, it was the only thing I asked to have back when she moved into the nursing home. She’d lost the ability to pray her Rosary any more, and I feared it would be lost.

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This day, as I wait to hear that she’s gone Home, I’ll be using that Rosary to pray for her. I’m grateful for the long and full life my Nana has led. As I hold my breath, waiting for the end, I’ll hang on tight to the Blessed Virgin Mary and her most chaste spouse, Saint Joseph, begging their intercession on her behalf, and on the behalf of my whole family.

6 thoughts on “Holding My Breath

  1. As you already know, all of you and The Lovely Nana are held in my prayers. Dementia is an awful, awful disease. I completely understand the part about praying for the mercy of forgetting that the patient used to remember things more, because it is so hard on the patient to know she doesn’t know things. We are in that same place with my mother-in-law.

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    • I can’t thank you enough for the prayers, Barb. It really makes a difference, especially when get to a point where you’re just tired and fuzzy-brained and can’t think or pray straight about things.

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      • I think that’s where you just have to say, “God, I know you’ve got this. It’s in your hands.”
        That’s a really hard thing to say. But when you do, it’s such a release of the burden of trying to fix something you cannot.

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  2. Dear Christine, Thank you for sharing these wonderful memories! I had a ‘Nana’ too – with similar stories! – and it was a joy to walk down that path with you and reminisce with those memories. I am holding all of you in my prayers.

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  3. Prayers and sympathy for your loss. What a loving tribute you have written. I have my grandmother’s rosary and it is a true gift.

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