It’s very rare that anyone in my family reaches the age of 90 years old. So, it was a shocking reminder to me a couple of weeks ago when I was talking to the kids about my Grandma Frieda (who they know as Bubbe Frieda) and I realized that she was indeed going to be 90 years old on her next birthday, July 27.
I wish I could say that I have been a dutiful granddaughter who always called and/or visited her grandmother. Who sent her cards and pictures of the kids. But I’m not. Or, I should say, I am not any more. But it is not because I am too busy with work or the kids or life in general. Or because I am a mean person.
It is because of one word: DEMENTIA.
To be fair, I used to do all those things. I used to call my grandmother every Friday to wish her Good Shabbos. I would send her cards for her birthday, for Mother’s Day, for Chanukah. I would send her pictures of the kids (and later on when her memory started to go, I would write the kids names on the back of the pictures along with “daughter/son of Elisa”) or pictures the kids had drawn for her. When she was back in New Jersey, I took the kids to see her every few weeks. They loved going to see Bubbe, she always had candy for them. They would draw pictures for her, Molly would help sort her pills into her pill sorter, and she would proudly walk up and down the halls showing off her great-grandchildren.
But not any more. It would be too sad for me, too scary for the kids. It would be sad for me to see her and know she doesn’t remember me or my kids. It would be sad to see her get upset that she doesn’t remember things. And it would be scary for the kids if we were to catch her on a bad day, when she is cursing or yelling about something.
I prefer to remember her the way she was back that day in September 2011 when I helped my mother and aunt pack up her belongings and move her from her apartment in the independent living facility to the nursing home wing at Daughters of Miriam in Clifton, New Jersey. She was already declining by then but at least she still remembered who I was that day, or at least asked me who I was when she forgot. I knew immediately that it would probably be one of the last, if not the last, times I would see her. I could see that the littlest thing would agitate her. I knew I would be too chicken to come back. And I knew that the kids could definitely no longer visit.
My grandmother wasn’t too thrilled about being moved to the dementia ward but there was no other choice. My mother and my aunt were too worried about her even with a full time aide. She would call them in the middle of the night panicking that she lost her baby. Or she would talk about her parents as if they were still alive. Or she took scissors and cut up brand new pants for no reason.
I honestly just didn’t think I could handle seeing her like that. I wanted to remember her the way she used to be. As that tough woman who said whatever was on her mind, whether it was nice or not. As that woman who insisted on dyeing her hair brown long after all her friends let theirs turn gray or white. As that woman who packed up her two daughters, ages 9 and 12, and moved back to Brooklyn from Pittsburgh after her marriage ended to live with her parents who helped raise the girls while she went to work (not a very common thing for women to do back in the 1950′s).
I prefer to remember the fun times my brother Brian and I had at grandma’s house after she moved down to Coral Springs, Florida around 1980. We flew down ourselves to stay with her for a few weeks in the summer. We had such fun going to the pool, taking the Number 2 Coral Springs bus to the mall or the movies, going to see Aunt Zelda and Uncle Arthur and the cousins.
My grandmother would fly up to New York for the High Holidays in the fall and for Passover in the spring (and complain, of course, that is was TOO COLD!!). We enjoyed seeing her when she came up but we always knew she couldn’t wait to go back to Florida. To her own apartment. To her friends. To her BINGO games and Sisterhood activities. To where she was happiest.
Until 2005. That was when she told my mother and aunt that she was ready to come back north. Many of her friends had either passed away or moved to assisted living facilities. She was far from her great grandchildren. And she was ready to leave Florida. So she came to Daughters of Miriam where she had her own apartment but was able to eat dinner with friends in the dining room. She was able to go to activities such as BINGO and movies and play cards. She could get on the bus and go to Acme or ShopRite. And she could see her family.
Celebrating her 85th birthday July 2008
Birthday party at Daughters of Miriam 2010
I don’t know that my grandmother understands that her birthday is this Saturday, that she will be 90 years old. I do know that I need to get over my fear of going to see her and not knowing what to expect. She may not remember me. She may call me a nasty word or two. But that’s okay. She is my grandma and I love her. And somehow I know she loves me too.
Happy 90th Birthday Grandma!!