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In Loving Memory
Our car pulls off the highway and turns into the parking lot, passing a sad excuse for a pond on the way. There are many names for the place my mom, my dad, my brother, my aunt, and I have just arrived at. Some call it a nursing home. Others call it an old-folks’ home. And those wishing to make it sound a little less depressing, call it an assisted-living facility. The name makes no difference to me--I just know I do not want to be here.
It’s a drab one-story building, and passing by on the highway, one would barely notice it. The front of the “home” reminds me of a mushroom--round on top with a short foundation. It seems to stretch on forever, but I know it must end somewhere. My brother remarks that it is not what he had expected. He then explains his version of what a nursing home should look like. What he describes reminds me of a mental institution.
I hesitantly climb out of the car, waiting for everyone else to get out first. As we walk towards the front of the building, I try to smile and pretend I’m not nervous to go in there. The first sign that I am entering uncharted nursing-home territory is the extra wide door for patients bound to their wheel chairs. The next sign is the smell. It’s a smell I cannot begin to explain, but one I know I will never forget.
As we move past the tiny entrance room, I see my first nursing home patient: a man probably in his eighties. He rolls around in his wheelchair talking nonsensically and roaming down the hallway. I watch him warily, treating him like a homeless man on the street that poses a threat. I realize that I have fallen behind and scurry to catch up with my family.
I enter the hospital-like room last of my family, and I am more than unprepared for what I see. At first, I’m not even sure she is alive, and worry that another death will need to be mourned. Then, her chest rises in a ragged breath.
I move an inch farther into my grandmother’s room. She lies motionlessly in the bed, clothed in nothing but a thin hospital gown. Her chest is flat, and she is much thinner than I remember her being the last time I saw her. That was five years ago, though. A thick blanket covers her from the waist down, making her legs look incredibly short underneath. I imagine her the size of a dwarf.
She makes no attempt to open her eyes as my father and aunt greet her. I remember those light blue eyes, but now her eyelids cover them like window blinds. My dad kisses her on the forehead and smoothes down her thin white hair. I watch the scene unfold before me, but I feel strangely detached from it, like I’m looking on from behind a thick sheet of glass. It is then that I look away.
I shift my focus to the layout of my grandmother’s room. There are multiple pictures of me in the room. I am reminded of happier times when my grandmother knew my name and remembered who I was. I imagine her looking at the pictures of me and wondering who that strange girl was, but I know her mind is too far gone to process even that much. Before I know it, tears are gathering in my eyes, and I’m beginning to do the thing I hate the most--cry. I abruptly leave the room.
I lean against one of the bare walls while I try to calm myself down, but it’s of no use. Across the hallway from me, a nurse prepares a thermometer and pretends not to notice me. I wonder if she is used to the sight of people like me crying in these hallways.
The tears write the story of my pain all over my face. All I can think about is how much I hate that horrible disease the doctors call Alzheimer’s. The other thought racing through my mind is that a few rooms down from where I am standing, my grandfather died a day earlier while watching a baseball game. Without his death, I wouldn’t be here.
A day after my grandfather’s funeral I return to the nursing home. Even more than the first time I visited, I do not want to be here. My parents had promised me I would not have to come back.
We are directed to the Activities Room, where my grandmother is supposed to be. There is no one playing bingo in the Activities Room as I had imagined. Instead it is about ten tables with cheesy tablecloths and a few old people gathered around the tables in their wheelchairs. My grandmother is alone at the very back of the room in a large wheelchair that supports her head because she cannot hold it up herself. Once again she is asleep.
My aunt gently shakes her awake. Her eyes open wide, making her look like a startled baby. She parts her lip slightly, and I wait for the words to come out, but of course they do not. She can no longer speak. She can no longer do any of the things I remember her doing, and that is what saddens me the most. She is trapped inside her own body, unable to live in this world and unable to die to live in the next.
When my father approaches her with a bouquet of flowers from the funeral, she strains forward an inch off her wheelchair before slumping back in exhaustion. It is the most I have seen her move. My father pulls a rose from the bouquet and places it under my grandmother’s nose to smell. He reminds her how much she used to love the smell of roses. That deals my glass heart its first blow, and tears roll down my face. Mistaking the rose for food, my grandmother opens her mouth, sticks her tongue out, and attempts to lick the rose. It reminds me of the time I fed the giraffes at the zoo, and they licked the leaves right off the branch with their long tongues. My grandmother lives off basic survival instinct.
I vaguely hear my mom calling my grandmother’s name over and over again, begging her to look at my brother and me. She pleads with her to understand and to hear her. Then, she pulls me in front of my grandmother, so that she can look at me for what will probably be the last time. I can barely bring myself to look in her crystal blue eyes, and when I do, I see nothing. There is no recognition in them. I pull away as my lip quivers, and a new wave of tears falls. Now my heart is completely shattered because she is gone. To me, she is deader than my grandfather.
A week and one day later, I find myself on the floor of my room crying. I haven’t slept in days, and the memories of my grandmother haunt me like a ghost. I do not know what I am supposed to do with myself. I feel as lost as my grandmother must feel in what to her must be a strange world. She is alive, but she is not.
When I look to my left, I see my collection of quotations. Immediately, my attention is drawn to a Stephen King quote. “So you leave, and there is an urge to look back just once as the sunset fades . . . Best not to look back. Best to believe that there will be happily ever afters all the way around--and so there may be; who is to say there will not be such endings?... Drive away and try to keep smiling. Get a little rock and roll on the radio and go toward all the life there is with all the courage you can find and all the belief you can muster. Be true, be brave, stand,” he writes. It fills me with a surprising degree of hope, and the tears come less violently.
My grandmother, the one I remember taking me to the beach and laughing with, would not want to live the way she does now, nor would she want to see me crying on the floor. I wish she could see the person I am today. Not knowing what else to do, I sit down and write these words. They are not adequate to describe what I saw nor what I felt, but at least I had the courage to right them, and for now that is the best I can do.