This is what my mother’s been telling be lately, as she and my dad juggle a slightly-demented uncle in a nursing home, his spunky wife in assisted living who insists on going home and, now, my grandmother—my dad’s mom--92, suffering from congestive heart failure and recovering from intestinal surgery at a nursing home, sharing her room with a women who has been on a feeding tube for 17 years and yells out, periodically, “Help me!”
“Just throw me in front of a train,” my mother says.
“Right,” I say.
“I mean it,” she says. “Really.”
I flew to my hometown, Erie, PA, last weekend to see my grandmother. It was a last-minute trip, after several updates from my dad that made it sound like there wasn’t much time. My grandmother wasn’t eating. I knew what that meant, only because we’d gone through this whole thing last spring, with my mom’s mom. Her Hospice nurse explained the eating thing early on—before my mom’s mom left the retirement home she’d lived in for decades, before she moved into the nursing home with all of her clothes marked with her name and her cassettes of the music she’d taped off of the oldies station and a bulletin board filled with photos of all of her 13 grandchildren. It was before she moved from that place after barely two months, and went to the Hospice house where, two weeks later, she died. The Hospice nurse told us that not eating is a sign.
When I got to the nursing home in Erie, my grandmother was sleeping with her mouth hanging open, an oxygen tube in her nose attached to a machine that hummed so loud it sounded like it might just up and take off. She looked better than I thought she would look. She had color. Her hair was done.
My cousin Melanie was there, sitting in the Lazy Boy beside our grandmother’s bed. She and her family had flown in from Texas. Melanie immediately began to describe, in detail, what my grandmother had eaten for lunch: a few bites of her applesauce, some of the pork chop, a whole glass of the Boost nutrition drink that she loves.
“They forgot to bring her the Boost at first,” Melanie said. “So I told her I’d only ask for it after she ate two more bites of her pork chop.”
“Smart,” I said.
I felt sad for both of them—my grandmother having her granddaughter cajole her into eating as if she were one of Melanie’s kids, and Melanie believing that, if she could just get Grandma to eat, everything would be fine. The surgery scar would heal. The swelling in her legs would go down. She would get better.
I vowed, when I stopped by to see Grandma the next day, I wouldn’t do this, I wouldn’t coax her to eat, I would let it be what it was. Whatever it was. A sign. Or not a sign. Here was what I knew for sure: A 92-year old woman could decide for herself if she wanted to eat. Out of nowhere, my grandmother’s roommate shouted: “Help me! Help me!” I wondered what she meant. I wondered what “help” was in a place like this. Did she want the food in that IV of hers? Or was she wishing she’d told her daughter what my mother’s been telling me? I wondered if, maybe, I didn’t want my grandmother to force herself to eat anything at all, but just let this life of hers run its course. Let it go.
She slept almost all of the three hours I was there, and I found myself sticking around because dinner was going to be served. She shouldn’t eat alone, I thought to myself. That’s why you’re staying. And then, the sweet nurse who’d earlier brought be a pack of Lorna Dunes, brought my grandmother’s tray. A potato pancake. Cottage Cheese. Canned pineapple.
“Grandma, why don’t you sit up a little, so you’re closer to the tray,” I said.
“Okay, honey,” she said, as I pressed the button on her bed that raised up her torso.
“What do you think of this?” I asked her, pointing to the tray.
“Yeah, honey.” She reached for the Boost. I watched her. I watched hands all gnarled with arthritis wrap themselves around the little plastic cup. I watched her twist her hips a little to alleviate that constant pain in her back. I watched her eyes almost start to doze off again, right in the middle of a sip. I knew what I should do. I knew what I wanted to do. But I was too selfish.
“Grandma,” I said, picking up the fork, “how about you take at least three bites of that cottage cheese.”