|Claudina in New York, 1940s.|
|A photo I took of my grandmother in July, as I |
left for the airport to return to New York.
These episodes didn't occur often, just sometimes, and it was sad to see her altered, not herself, and it meant being extra patient when she was in a prickly mood. But it was manageable—for my two aunts, her daughters, who live near her, and for my grandfather, who's 89.
Amazingly, by July, the situation had become a crisis. My grandmother has the sort of dementia that manifests as rage. Her paranoia is no longer manageable. She is certain my grandfather is having an affair. Many affairs. When bills arrive in the mail, she reads them and sees other women's names. My grandfather is paying for other women. She finds an item of clothing belonging to one of my aunts and holds it up as proof that one of his mistresses has been there.
This would all be almost comical, as sad as it is, except that she is so enraged at these (imagined) infidelities that she wants to hurt my grandfather. She already does so verbally. When she's having one of her rages, she'll talk for hours about what a terrible, disgusting person he is. How he has wronged her. How she has no money now because he has given it all to these women. That he is the lowest person on earth. Ugly things, she tells him, and her face becomes distorted with an anger so potent that it's frightening.
Sometimes these rages end in her weeping, because she feels vulnerable and betrayed. Her sadness seems to come from deep inside her. It's so heartbreaking to see. And sometimes there's no sadness, only hard anger. She threatens to hurt him. Once, my aunt had to call the police because my grandmother physically attacked her. Once, my grandfather called 911.
They all live in Orlando, not far from the subdivision where I grew up. I moved to New York 17 years ago and at first visited them at least once a year. Probably since 2005 or so, I've been going three times a year. Each visit, my grandmother would talk about how quickly time passes, how fast life goes by, and I knew she was dreading the end. I knew she was afraid of death and felt it coming ever closer. It became easier—for me, because her sadness tore me up—to visit more often so that I could always cheerfully say, "I'll see you in a few months." Of course, she'd always reply, "God willing." Writing that, I find it funny. Like she's some mordant character from Moonstruck. But really, her response was a reflection of how powerless she felt.
|From left: My grandparents, Claudina and Domingo, in Culebra |
circa 1941 and in Long Island, New York, in the early 1970s.
|In New York (probably at either Jones Beach or Orchard Beach) in the |
1950s with Myrna (left), Diana, and my father. They had a fourth child,
who is just four and a half years older than me, in 1963.
This summer, since the diagnosis, I have been to Orlando twice, for a week at a time. My aunts needed a break. They both work full-time, and taking care of my grandmother is a full-time job too. One that is unpredictable—distressed calls from my grandfather at 2 in the morning, calls at work, calls after they've just gotten home from spending hours with my grandparents. And one that is endless. And thankless. And let me say it again: endless.
Of course, there's an even crueler twist to it all. I say of course because my grandmother has probably never been an "easy" person. We all love her. And we're all in awe of her strength. When my father, her firstborn, was just a few years old, she and my grandfather split up for a while. He was in the Merchant Marine and was away on a ship. She was in Culebra, Puerto Rico—she's from Vieques, and my grandfather's from Culebra—at the time. (This was in the early 1940s.) And she saw that there would be few opportunities for my father once he grew up. So she moved to Brooklyn to stay with an aunt of hers so that she could make a new life. Neither she nor my father spoke English. She found work as a seamstress in factories, and she took care of them both till she and my grandfather reconciled I guess a year or more later. No small feat to make it in a strange city, when you don't speak the language, have only an eighth-grade education, and grew up on a farm that had no electricity or running water. You better believe we admire her strength.
Plus, she's beaten cancer (she's had two mastectomies), has lived with diabetes for almost 20 years and managed it flawlessly, and very nearly died one recent Thanksgiving—heart failure—but pulled through. This woman cannot be taken down. My aunts call her "The Tower of Power."
|A photo I took of her in her kitchen, just before bed, last Christmas.|
|A photo I took my first morning there, |
when I visited her in June.
|That same June visit, I asked my grandfather how |
he was feeling about things. He closed his eyes.
|My grandparents sleep in separate rooms now, at my |
grandmother's insistence. Here's my grandfather in
the spare room where I used to stay when I
visited. I used to read by that lamp just before bed.
The crueler twist is that apart from the rages, my grandmother is almost exactly as she was before the diagnosis. She seems entirely herself. She takes care of her appearance. She takes care of the house. She cooks. She enjoys spending time with her dog. She certainly remembers all of us. It's not like she doesn't know what's going on around her. Until the rages. So it really cleaves our hearts to think about putting her in a nursing home, against her will—because she does not want to leave her home; she loves her home and her dog and her plants—during those times when we're talking with her just like before, when we're all eating dinner together and it's nice, when we see her in the back porch sitting with her dog and looking out at the trees and sky and enjoying the beautiful yard. How can we stomach putting her somewhere with strangers? How can we be at peace thinking of her alone at night?
|With her dog, who has become her closest, |
and most trusted, companion.
|My grandmother and me in Long Island, |
So my aunts are talking with a lawyer about having my grandmother committed. It has become an issue of survival. I cannot believe that this is where we are. Already. None of us can.
My grandmother's name is Claudina. She is a person, not just a patient. I hope the people at the nursing home, who we will be trusting her with, will remember that.
Oh, mi abuela.