In the late 80's my grandmother took me with her to see her mother in a nursing home in small town Western Illinois. This was around the time of my big high school relationship (all of 9 months) and my experiment with born again Christianity - I'm guessing it was roughly 1987. The place was bleak, institutional painted cinderblock. I remember my great grandmother slumped over the table in a common room, crying, and my grandmother, not really the nurturing type, not knowing what to do with her. Grandma Eva never did learn my name - she referred to me as "D," after my father, and when I corrected her she'd wave me off and say, "I know where you come from, anyway" - but on that day she didn't know me from Adam. She'd always been the life of the party - she was running around with a boyfriend and a sporty red car well into her 80s, and was a fixture at family events like weddings and funerals, fortified by a couple Rob Roys (if you're local, the place to get this drink in Chicago is definitely the Green Mill - up, with a twist). She started offering me beer at the ripe old age of ten - probably confusing me with my father already. Buy by 1987 she divided her time between staring off into space, and crying, near as I could tell.
After the awkward visit, my grandmother turned to me on the way out and made me promise: "If I ever get like that, just shoot me." A steelworker's wife who made a name for herself in local Republican politics and had counted Don Rumsfeld as a friend back when he was a lowly Congressman, she was known to joke about firearms in much the way I am, but this was no deadpan - what she'd seen scared her more than death and Big Government put together.
Christmas eve, I went with my father to visit her at the nursing facility where he moved her six weeks or so ago. The walls were not painted cinderblock, in fact they were decorated with a tasteful border. Pictures of her loved ones, were arranged around the room, including my wedding pictures and some endearingly goofy shots of my late grandfather. At least these places look nicer these days; I'm sure the saunas and the juice bar will be installed by the time the Baby Boomers start checking in. But the low moan of chaos was still there in the background, and the incessent beeping of the patient alarms added a new level of hell for those of us without hearing aids to turn down.
Mostly my father talked and she nodded compliantly, asking a few confused questions here and there. Her hard edges are mostly worn smooth by now, except for occasional glaring moments of clarity.
"Elwood's just in town for the day, but he wanted to make sure he got to see you," my father exaggerated.
"Well, what do you think?" she asked, in one of those lucid moments when her personality still comes through the dementia. "Do you like what you see?" My father kept right on talking. The worst part is, he's starting to get like everyone else and talk about her as if she's not there. On this day he started to talk about people coming in to monitor her bowel movements, with her sitting right there - to some extend I think he find's the situation darkly funny, but she seemed mortified and I cringed on her behalf.
I hope she doesn't remember. She's forgotten a lot, and I hope one of the things she's forgotten is my promise. I don't even own a gun, and wouldn't have the balls to shoot her anyway. But the weight of all she's lost weighs me down in that place. And the worst part of it is the way people talk about you like you weren't there, they way we talk about our cats. My grandmother held on to her dignity and pride when her father walked out during the Depression and she was left raising her younger siblings at the age of twelve, and I don't think she wants to live without them now.
It's not getting old itself that scares me, it's the thought of being treated like I'm not a person anymore.