I remember my Father pulling into the parking lot of the Tennessee nursing home my grandmother had been living in for 10 years. We’d visited family over the weekend and wanted to see her before we headed home. Dad and I both got out of the car, but my Mother wouldn’t budge. She just couldn’t bring herself to walking into that home and seeing her mother-in-law in the advanced stages of Alzheimer’s. It was a depressing place, filled with people in wheelchairs positioned along the hallways napping or yelling out unintelligible words. Other residents were still in their rooms, either sleeping or sitting alone, staring at the walls.
My grandmother’s room was a far cry from what had been her home for nearly 50 years. Born in the Appalachian Mountains, her 4’ 11” frame was no indication of the strength and determination that exuded from this woman. When she wasn’t tending to her five children, Maggie worked alongside her husband in the tobacco fields. She treasured her seven grandchildren and would load us down with cakes and pies and come to our rescue each time we got into trouble. She was a rock for my grandfather, reading the Bible to him every day since he dropped out of school in the fourth grade and didn’t know how to read. But like her father Ike Ramsey, Maggie developed Alzheimer’s.
We walked into her room to find pictures of grandchildren surrounding her, along with a calendar that used to hang in her kitchen just above the stove where she cooked thousands of meals for her family, always making a little go a long way. A few trinkets from home were scattered about her room, looking terribly out of place since they’d been housed for decades in the wood paneled farmhouse her husband had built. Maggie could no longer communicate, her words flowing out like garbled gibberish while she nodded back and forth in her rocking chair.
She typically had a smile on her sweet, wrinkled face, but not that day. I looked at my Father and could tell that his heart was broken. He sat in front of her, talking to her, asking her questions he knew she couldn’t answer, because those were the questions he usually asked her. Eventually, I walked over to her and bent down to say hello. As soon as she saw me, she broke into a huge smile, lifting both hands to cup my face. She could no longer say my name, but she knew I was her granddaughter. I felt bad for Dad, that I was the one she recognized and not him. But watching his mother’s face light up touched him deeply.
That was more than 20 years ago. Yesterday, another visit took place.
My Mother and I drove to Fountainview Center for Alzheimer’s to see my Father for the first time since he moved there two weeks ago. I was apprehensive about the visit and tried not to think about the questions that kept popping up in my head.
Has he regressed any? Will he recognize us? Will he know who we are? And worse of all, will he beg us to take him home with us?
I pulled into the parking lot and we both got out of the car. There was no way Mom was missing out on this visit. Wild horses couldn’t keep me away, she said. We slathered sanitizer on our hands, had our temperatures taken and were escorted to a modest meeting room in the West Pavilion with a table and a couple of chairs. We could look through the glass doors and see residents sitting in their wheelchairs surrounding the nurse’s station. It appeared to be a cheerful place, with colorful bulletin boards, staff members smiling and the doctor making his rounds. Dad was being moved out of the observation area, so we brought more framed pictures of family and some of Dad’s artwork from Grace Arbor to fill up his new room.
A few minutes later, they wheeled him in to see us. He was alert and in good spirits. He couldn’t tell us our names, but he knew us. We chatted, asked him questions and took pictures. We met the doctor and his nurse and learned that he didn’t have a roommate yet. Since he’s such a social butterfly, I made a mental note to ask God to give him a good roommate.
Mom asked him questions and in typical Jack fashion, he had us laughing.
“Do you know who I am?” she asked.
“You’re the woman who sold me out!” he answered, smiling.
I pulled out my phone and showed him videos from a couple of weeks ago when he visited Grace Arbor and clapped along while Kevin played his favorites on the piano. He started clapping and sang along with the videos. I read a chapter in John from the Bible and he listened intently, nodding his head and saying, Yes. And before we knew it, our 50 minutes was over and they were escorting him out of the room.
There were so many good things about this visit. And I was grateful for every one of them, especially that it was nothing like my visit with my grandmother. But a deep sadness settled over me as I drove home. I know Mom and I have done everything we possible could for him and I know he is exactly where he’s supposed to be. But that doesn’t seem to make it any easier.
Sadness can be so heavy that it literally exhausts you. So I kept giving it to God. I tried writing about it when I got home to process everything, but I couldn’t. It was too fresh. Like watching a car accident in which everyone involved was protected and unharmed, but being ferried to the hospital to make sure there were no injuries. I see God’s hand in all of it. But what I’m feeling is the trauma of it all. So I’ve asked God to heal me of that too.
Something would be wrong with me if this ordeal didn’t make me sad. We’ve been grieving for 16 years ~ ever since my Father was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. But I’m realizing that I’ve entered a new phase of grieving. I’m grieving my Father not being here with us.
So what do you do? How do you handle that?
You invite God into the grief. He is no stranger to grief. He knows me inside and out, knows what I need and knows how to walk me through this process. So I’ll tell Him everything and read His Word so I can be held and my soul can be healed.
Loved ones belong together. So I will take comfort in knowing God is with my Father, even though I can’t always be.