Grandmother’s frail health brings revelations

Photo+by+Emily+Franke

Photo by Emily Franke

Kaitlyn Marsh

Photo by Emily Franke
Photo by Emily Franke
We commemorated her 75th birthday two weeks ago, a so-called monument and celebration of another year. We sang and opened presents, yet there is nothing I want to remember about this year. Addressing her card with a personal message, I scribbled out “blessed to have another healthy year…”
But it wasn’t accurate. Just “another year” stood above my signature. I hoped the smudge didn’t stand out too much.
Compared to the vibrant, exuberant woman I once knew, she has withered. The legs below her baggy sweatshirt resemble that of a newborn, weak and fragile, and she tries to hide her gasps as she mounts the single step into the foyer and shuffles to the patterned rocking chair in the living room. She drops into its arms as if she is struggling to carry her own weight, because she is.
Always interested in my life and my well-being, she questions and smiles, displaying the empty space past her right canine. Another thing she can never get back, I think. Yet, her eyes show the incandescent beauty of her smile in its sincerity. Of course I gush in the welcoming aura and share recent stories, and she laughs and comments here and there. But her laugh is restrained, almost lost.
I remember her real laugh, when she would squint her eyes so hard, bend over and howl. Remember that laughter; do not forget, I have to remind myself. I feel it is my responsibility to make sure that healthy person I used to know lives on, even if she’s only a memory. I must not forget this happiness.
She asks for a blanket. Retrieving it quickly, I tuck my favorite quilted throw under her legs, careful not to bump her for a fear of something snapping. She grasps at the top of it with her hands. I force myself to focus on something else, watching her claw with those hands.
They are mangled, slowly morphing into unrecognizable formations. The left knuckles protrude an inch above the back of her hand, swollen and bruised in color, and her fingers stick permanently straight and useless. Her right hand hangs lifeless, her fingers waving as if they contain no feeling, the bottom of these digits purple in color. At dinner that night, she joked about them.
“I wish I had hooks,” she said. “I wonder if I could just get these things removed and have hooks installed. I’d be having a good old time with them, waving them around and hooking things. They’d work better than what I’ve got now.”
My grandmother, the mother of my mother, contracted rheumatoid arthritis approximately six years ago. She has aged far beyond that of a woman in her mid-70s. She loves to talk, to laugh, to be outdoors, but her mobility has been basically halted and her energy depleted. Her body is literally deteriorating on the inside. First joints and bone, now muscle. Every day she loses a little more ability to move, a little more of herself. Since the diagnosis, she has lost nearly 80 pounds.
Visiting her is almost too much to bear anymore. Her tiny house reeks odors of urine and stagnant water, the results from soiled clothing and dishes that have been soaking in the sink since Mom visited last month. She sits in the same spot on the couch. Every day, she sits on that couch. Alone.
How selfish am I to duck into the other room as she cries out in pain when she lifts herself from her chair. I know nothing near the pain she lives through every morning when she wakes up on her couch, only not to be able to lift a glass of water to her lips with her own two hands to drink.
How indolent I am as I sit on my own couch and play with my superficial gadgets with an unwillingness to help with dinner or do my own laundry, while my grandmother has done nothing but serve others her entire life, as she struggles with every move, even to place her last few dollars in the offering plate at church.
I wish I could give her some of my abilities I never take advantage of. How is it God has blessed me immensely, but I feel as if I am wasting it, like she is wasting away? I detest running. She prays for a chance to run again. I gorge myself at Thanksgiving with turkey and stuffing while she sits alone in her house, lacking energy to even chew and swallow.
Yet, she thanks God every day for what she has, more than I do by a great margin. In the position of having absolutely nothing, she is more humble and grateful than I would ever be. She doesn’t complain. She doesn’t resent God or anyone for what has happened to her. She only looks for ways to overcome, embrace change one cannot control and view the glass half-full, values I hope to learn and pass down to my own children even after she retires to a home of no suffering, no pain.
“I am so blessed,” she said. “Whenever I look around at everyone else in the world, I feel so blessed to be me.”
By Kaitlyn Marsh