December 28, 2009

Pride goes before a fall

We had Christmas one day early this year.  The evening of the 23rd, we all trekked out to my uncle's house, far away in the country up a steep, rain-sodden gravel drive.  My great-grandparents were there: GrandDad, with his hunched back arcing up over the nape of his neck; Grandmother, with her vacant expression and absolute deafness, finally confined to a wheelchair after years of putting on a pretence of being able to walk.

We opened presents with typical chaos, though instead of one-at-a-time, oldest to youngest, there was an attempt at organization followed by "whatever!" and everyone opening at once.  GrandDad would slowly unwrap each of Grandmother's gifts, holding it out for her inspection like an offering at an altar. 

The next day, GrandDad went to the care facility to sit with Grandmother while she examined her gifts again...but she refused.  She insisted on leaving, on being taken home to sit and look through her gifts, her free pass out of the nursing home really her best gift this Christmas.  The troops were mustered: GrandDad went to the home, and Mom, my brother, and I piled into the car to help.  Wheelchair to car was managed reasonably well, with Grandmother able to settle herself in the front seat, lifting her legs with her hands behind the knees and pivoting them around in front of her; a twitch on her skirted lap, to adjust trailing hems, and she was inside the car.

At their house, GrandDad backed the car into the garage, so that Grandmother was next to the single step up to the door (her preferred route: No one had used the front door in years).  The screened garage door, propped open, made a narrow diagonal path with the car door, opened so wide it hit the wall.  By some fluke, I was positioned in front of her, waiting to help her "walk" to the den (a short distance: maybe seven feet?), her pride and dignity refusing to use the wheelchair that she really needed.  Laboriously, she swung her legs to the ground and started feeling for the car door.  As usual, she didn't want to lean on my arm, but preferred the extension thingy on the door as a safety rail.  I convinced her to hold on to me instead, a much sturdier choice.  My brother crawled through the driver's seat to stand behind Grandmother, his hands on her waist. 

She managed to put one foot on the first step: to place the other there would have required a miracle.  She must no longer feel her legs--I think there is some paralysis--because she had no way of actually supporting herself.  Finally, Ben and I lifted her into position on the stoop, but suddenly I could feel her getting heavier and heavier--her feeble but frantic cries of "I can't do it!  I'm going to fall!" proved that she was already giving up and not helping us help her at all.  Eventually, I had my arms on her sides: underneath her shoulders, the way you might lift a toddler before settling him on your hip.  She grew heavier, and as we tried to move her forward I think her feet must have gotten caught or her legs simply gave out, because suddenly we were sinking, as if the wooden floorboards had turned into quicksand, we sank down until I think she was on her knees and I was crouched as low as possible.  Ben and I gathered around her, and Ben's reluctance to touch her (an aversion, I think, because she was Grandmother, capital G, inviolate, old, incontinent, ancient, the one around whom the family did everything, the very definition of matriarch) made it difficult to maneuver.  A last resolved grasp, and the two of us simply picked her up, Ben's arms around her waist, mine under her arms, and we shuffled forward (or backward, in my case) five or six feet to a wooden bench in the hallway.

As we set her down, I straightened up, sweating but relieved that we had made it, that we had not really dropped her, that now we could make her sit in the wheelchair so that life would be easier for everyone.

We moved her into the den, seated beside the divan (another small skirmish: had she sat on the couch, we would never have rescued her from its cushioned, low-seated confines).  Ben and I were sent on a lunch mission while Mom and the grandparents examined Grandmother's gifts (again).

After lunch, GrandDad's reluctance to cross Grandmother's wishes--in its own way, a sweet gesture of the fact that he has been her companion and caretaker for far too many years to count--generated a ridiculous plan: we would take her out the way she came in, only with more room around the car door.  Ben and I refused: the front door was easy to maneuver, we could lift her down the single step to the porch, and then it was an even path out to where the car was already parked.

GrandDad fussed, but I would not give in.  I thought about autonomy, and whether, if Grandmother were my patient, I would be allowed to do what I was doing there: telling her how it would be, rather than giving her a choice.  It was for my convenience, sure: but ultimately, it was for Grandmother, too.  She actually was unable to walk: to let her believe otherwise was a disservice and a bit of a farce.

At the car door, as Ben pivoted her into the front seat, all of us urging her to put her hand through the door so that she could be seated.  Finally, she was in, tilted sideways worse than the leaning tower of Pisa; I tried to get Ben to help her shift so that she was more upright, but he didn't understand.  I leaned into the car and wrapped my arm around her, under her arm and behind her back, and helped her scootch her bottom into place. 

Despite the frustration of trying to get her to move, I saw a vulnerability in the gratitude on her face when she thanked me for getting her situated; despite the smell and her stained clothes, there was a sweetness in the fact that she needed us, really needed us, to make this small trip from the house to the car.  And despite the fact that normally, a reveal of such weakness, such dependence would have released a wave of vitriol from her lips, muttered but certainly audible to us, even if she couldn't hear it--despite this, she seemed genuinely glad we had helped her.  Genuinely glad she was able to count on us to help her inside.

In the car, my brother could only rant about how awful she smelled, about how gross it was to touch her, especially around her bottom (she has not had control over her body function for as long as I have been alive, I'm pretty sure).  But all I could think about was that brief glance at the end, and the thought that kept recurring in my head: this might be her last Christmas.  Ninety-two is a lot of years.  Even though I thought she was eighty-eight for most of my childhood (somehow, I never really knew how old she was and this number always felt right), she's been around for a long time. 

I had never really felt this strongly about her: Grandmother has always been a feature at every holiday, and with each year it has taken longer and longer for her to reach the house from the car.  But never before have I seen her this way: dependent and humbled; like a real person who needs help.  And hearing my brother's revulsion in a way made me notice his immaturity, because Grandmother certainly couldn't help it.  And she certainly would not have chosen to present herself that way.  But Ben's inability to move beyond the very real smells of old age made me realize that I was able to do so.  It was a strange feeling, like looking in the mirror and suddenly realizing that you are as tall as you will ever be, that you are your parents' height and that makes you a "big" person: that you are an adult.

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