This month marks the 5th anniversary of my grandmother’s death. And most of the time I think I have a pretty good grip on the situation. She was 93 years-old and I consider that a long time to be alive. A pretty good run as they say. She had seen a lot- women’s suffrage, World War II, the civil rights movement, the Trail Blazers winning an NBA championship (they were her favorite!).
Not only had she seen a lot in her lifetime, but also done a lot of things I admired growing up. She lived most of her life in a small Oregon town and was expected to do things that young women in the 1930s were supposed to do- get married, have children, etc. She took a different path for awhile, getting herself to beauty school 90 miles away so she could have her own income and career. She married when she was in her late 20s to a man over 10 years older and of a different Scandinavian ethnicity (imagine the scandal- a Norwegian marrying a Finn!).
She always had a very determined and independent spirit. When my grandfather passed away in the 1970s, she remained in the home where she raised her children for over 30 additional years, living on her own. She had many hobbies, including knitting, crosswords, reading romance novels, and rosemaling, a traditional Norwegian decorative painting. I treasured the time I got to spend with her, whether she was teaching me to crochet for the fourth time, showing us off to her friends in town in her huge brown boat of a Buick, or getting caught up on the Young and the Restless, her favorite soap.
I also loved to hear about her travels, both when she was young high school basketball player and member of Daughters of Norway travelling around the Pacific Northwest and when she would accompany my aunt who worked for various airlines around the world. One of my favorite pictures of her is on an elephant in Asia. Not many grandmothers can claim that honor. It was also pretty special that she would fly 3,000 miles solo to come stay with us around the holidays.
It’s funny, when she started to show signs of Alzheimer’s disease, the determined spirit almost became magnified. First, she was determined to stay living independently. She had downsized to an apartment in town and no longer drove, but she had us all convinced she was fine until we found her passed out on the couch from lack of eating. Unopened medicine bottles were all around because she had never taken a prescription in her life and wasn’t about to start now.
Even as she made the transition from apartment to assisted living to nursing home, she was still a determined lady. Adamant that she needed to leave, she had a reputation for trying to escape, even after she was no longer walking. More heartbreaking was when she would tell you about how her husband was coming to get her soon, she just knew it. Or when she pretended to know who we were, but it was obvious our faces were only vaguely familiar. And in lighter moments, she would say things like “If one more person asks me if I want a banana, I’m going to lose it!”
And while I know, both professionally and personally, what to expect with Alzheimer’s, and I can rationalize that ‘she had a great life’ and ‘she was ready,’ my heart still feels so heavy about it. We lost the matriarch of the family piece by piece, memory by memory. I become very emotional when I see others I’m close to go through similar experiences. Alzheimer’s is truly a long goodbye and although I felt like I lost her long before she was actually gone, I’m still not fully over it. I’m not sure I ever will be.
November is Alzheimer’s Disease Awareness Month. The Alzheimer’s Association has a wealth of resources and ways to help.
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