Every Sunday my mother would visit her. Never missed a week, except for the rare vacation. Nothing but an out-of-state trip would prevent my mother from going to see her mother, Elena deRoux Escobar—my grandmother—and then she was sure to visit her twice the week after that.
My French/Spanish grandma, who had been born in Nicaragua, was at age 88 living in a private home run by a Filipino family, where she received the necessary round-the-clock supervision my widowed mother couldn't provide. Grandma could no longer live alone. Once my sister dropped in and found a potential fire smoldering on the stove. The burner on high, Grandma was trying to cook a can of dog food for dinner. Another time she was found munching "candy" she had picked up in the bathroom. It was potpourri. She started getting lost on walks around the neighborhood she’d lived in for two decades. She would open the front door and let the dogs loose. She was losing her balance and tripping over steps, slipping on rugs. We feared one day she would seriously hurt herself or burn the house down.
Was it Alzheimer’s? No, the doctors said. The best diagnosis they could offer was that perhaps Grandma was suffering from dementia caused by a series of strokes too minor to detect. She was in good physical health, but her mind was deteriorating. She needed 24-hour-a-day supervision.
So after much stress and guilt, Mother put Grandma in this private facility that offered the comforts of home with the supervision now required. Aside from the attendants, there were only six other residents. The family that ran the facility tried to make their residents feel comfortable. They provided home-cooked meals, celebrated birthdays and holidays, and enjoyed assembling everyone in the cozy living room that featured a fireplace and big-screen TV. And every Sunday, for nine years, my mother went to visit her.
My sister and I visited Grandma, too, although not as often. Gradually, over the years, Grandma stopped recognizing all of us.
‘Abuelita,” I would say in Spanish as I stroked her cheek. “Es tu nieta, Eileen!” It’s your granddaughter.
And Grandma would give me her gentle smile, not sure who I was, but glad that I had come to visit nonetheless.
At age 94 however, the light in her eyes began to fade until soon we realized that she no longer knew who we were. Sundays became more difficult for my mother. After each visit, she would call and tell me in a shaky voice that Grandma was going downhill. And she was right.
Grandma no longer nibbled on the Pepperidge Farm cookies mother would feed her. She stopped responding to familiar voices. When I kissed her nose, I would tease, “Abuelita, que naricita mas fria que la de un perrito.”
Grandma, your nose is cold, like a dog’s! She use to smile at that, but now she just sat there, staring blankly into space. Mother and I would sit in the family room conversing while Grandma sat upright in a chair, immobile, frozen.
“What a horrible way to live,” my mother would sigh while using a baby brush to comb her mother’s wild, white hair. I would caution her to watch what she said around Grandma. Who knew what words might filter through the fogbanks of her mind?
At 97, Grandma’s condition worsened and she was transferred to a nursing home. When we went to visit, I was shocked at her appearance. Although I’d seen her just a few weeks earlier, it was now quite apparent that she was dying. My once robust Grandma had withered to a mere 60 pounds. Her lips were firmly sealed shut. She hadn’t opened her mouth for days, the nurse said, not to eat or drink or speak.
We stood in the sunny room and watched as Grandma, lying in a fetal position, stared vacantly at the wall. My mother sobbed and I stood there awkwardly, not knowing how to say goodbye. I leaned over and put my face close to Grandma’s, directly in front of her blank eyes.
“Hola, Abuelita,” I whispered, hoping she might understand me just one more time. “Es tu nieta, Eileen.”
“Mi Abuelita, yo te quiero.” My grandma, I love you.
And suddenly, her brown eyes focused and she looked at me. Saw me. A light of recognition flickered briefly as she gazed into my eyes. She opened her clenched mouth and whispered, “Yo tambien.”
Me too. Her first words in over two years. Then the light faded and she went back to starting into space.
Grandma died five days later. At her funeral, I watched as relatives—people who hadn’t thought to call or visit once in ten years—mourned, but I couldn’t cry. I was relieved, actually. Happy that her spirit was freed from the frozen shell she’d been locked in for so long. And I held close to my heart the knowledge that for one precious moment, my grandma had returned to say goodbye.
“Yo tambien.” Me too.