There is an email from my father in my email box this morning. It’s full of worry and anxiety about my grandmother.
My dad’s mom is 93 years old. That in itself is amazing. She’s been around so long, I think, that everyone has long since taken her presence for granted. That is, until the last little while.
She had a life threatening infection last year, and was hospitalized. But miraculously, she recovered. Her knee replacement, years old, had inexplicably become infected. It had to be removed, and she lived without a joint for six weeks until all of the infected material was sure to be gone. Then she had surgery to replace the missing knee joint.
At age 91, that seemed crazy. And that she wouldn’t pull through. We all rallied around her bedside. But she pulled through.
Nearly a year later, she fell in the hallway at home on the way to the bathroom. It was a few days before Christmas; my family was with my father in Florida. She was rushed to the hospital in an ambulance, where her shattered hip was repaired. After a few weeks at rehab, she was sent home. No one could believe it. She pulled through again.
But when I visited a few months later, this past May for Mother’s Day, I wasn’t so sure. She really didn’t look any better than when I’d last seen her in January, a week after returning home. She could hardly walk, and needed her walker to do so. She couldn’t use the bathroom unassisted. She complained of being tired, so tired. And she just didn’t seem to have the spunk and the fight that we’d all been so very used to.
I warned my father to be prepared when he went to visit his parents this summer. That she wasn’t as resilient as he might be thinking based on his phone conversations with her. That things were headed down a one way road. And I made plans to visit her again, while he visited.
When I came, just two months after my previous visit, she didn’t know who I was. When I entered her living room with my two kids in tow, and kissed her cheek, she spoke to me as if I was a kind acquaintance, not a granddaughter who comes around every few months.
It shocked me. Even though my grandmother certainly is old enough to be losing her memory, it’s the one thing that has always seemed infallible throughout all of her physical troubles these last few years. Later, she confused me with my sister, and confided to my father that she didn’t remember my visit on Mother’s Day, at all. She didn’t even know I’d been there.
I sat my father down, before he left to go back home to Florida, and told him that he had to really start making some plans. It’s an odd thing, to talk to a parent about how to lose their parent. It’s a conversation I have had now with so many people that I’ve lost count, the inevitable awfulness that comes with illness and approaching death. But it’s not a conversation that I ever imagined that I’d have with my father.
He seemed lost. No, they hadn’t made any plans. No, they hadn’t discussed anyone’s wishes yet with either his mother, his stepfather, or any of his siblings. Did I really think these uncomfortable conversations had to happen now, or could they wait? I reminded him of how much my mother prepared for her death, and how that had helped all of us left behind cope. She’d untangled every difficult thread for us already, so that all we had to do was follow the threads of the plans she made ahead of time. He seemed to agree that these conversations were necessary, but like most people I’ve had this conversation with, seemed willing to look for reasons to wait on them.
So for now, I continue to get emails like the one I did today. My dad will do everything he can around the edges of what is emotionally too hard for anyone in the family to face. He’ll send repairmen to fix up the house, he will keep an eye on the bank accounts from an Internet Explorer window a thousand miles away, and he’ll make plans to visit again in a few months to see if things still look as grim as they did this summer.
It is all he can do, he says. And for now, he believes it.