Friday, November 11, 2011

Glimpsing the End

Growing up I knew my grandparents were different from other kids'. The grandparents I saw on TV were friendly and spoiled their grandkids. They were always around for family occasions and holidays. Grandpas told their grandkids stories or helped them build things or play while Grandma plied everyone with assorted baked goods.

I came into the world already two grandparents short. The one who were left had suffered plenty of damage long before I was born. Zayde was a ghost and Bubbe was... well, she sure wasn't a TV grandma. She was definitely into crafts but what had started as a pretty normal "knit sweaters and socks" kick eventually morphed into crocheting ladies' hats from supermarket bags and making bookmarks out of cardboard and her old pantyhose. I guess when you're an artsy type and you live through a Depression it becomes hard to throw stuff away.

Bubbe had never been a good cook, either. She spent most of her adult life with severe GI problems which it took several decades to realize were caused by a gluten allergy. By the time I was born she had been living on her own (and only cooking for herself) for about ten years. Any possible culinary skills were long gone. The most complicated thing I ever saw her eat was a tuna fish sandwich on rice cakes.

Bubbe is neither particularly warm nor open, particularly when it comes to family matters. Predictably, this has led to a fair amount of tension over the years as I've continued to be interested in the family history of both her and my grandfather, a man and period she was never too keen to talk about.

Still, despite all her crotchetiness, a part of me did always believe Mama Yid when she'd sigh, shake her head and say, "I bet she'll outlive us all."

In the past few months, that white lie has been proven false. Bubbe has gone from being almost entirely self-sufficient in her Florida apartment to suffering significant brain damage, and is now living in a full-time nursing facility in LA. She can't walk; she's lost dexterity in her hands; she can't even go to the bathroom on her own. According to relatives on the ground her recurring mantra has become "I just want to die." The last few weeks have seen even more deterioration: apparently now she's attacking the staff and screaming that they're trying to hurt her.

We've gone from imagining her living well into her 90s into wondering whether she'll make it another few months to her last grandchild's Bar Mitzvah.

Mrs. Yid's father Habakkuk works in end of life care, so he and her have some strong opinions about this sort of thing-- opinions which I, for the most part, share. If Bubbe is suffering and has no real chance of "recovering," much less having any kind of quality of life she wants, I think it's appropriate to start considering palliative options or even hospice. Of course, this is made more complicated by the fact that there are four siblings-- plus an extra few in-laws all trying to talk, coordinate and convince each other of what the right thing to do is. This is not helped by the fact that none of the siblings like each other all that much-- to say nothing of their feelings towards Bubbe.

I want to be there with her-- but at the same time, I don't. I'm worried I'll regret not going to see her, but the idea of going is also pretty frightening.

The whole thing is very sad. I know that nothing I do is going to change the outcome-- Bubbe might go soon, or she might live on like this for several more years. It's hard to figure out what would be optimal. I suppose that if the way she is now is the best she's going to be then, as uncomfortable as it is to contemplate, I suppose, for her sake, I'd rather she go quickly.

But I have to confess that I'm a little scared about how I'll feel when she does.

Despite everything, she's the only real grandparent I've ever had. Though we aren't super close (no one in my family really is), it's scary to contemplate how things will feel without her-- how we'll all deal with it, and how we'll honor and remember her.


Susan B said...

It is not surprising that going to see her feels frightening. As someone who was scared of these kinds of situations for a long time, my advice (though you didn't ask for it) is to walk toward your fear. Go see her.

If you need to, first talk to a rabbi or someone else you know and trust who has visited people who are ill. Or, you could call someone at the Bay Area Jewish Healing Center.

At any rate, go. Be there for her. Listen. You will be glad you did, and you will be a better person for it.

Mighty Garnel Ironheart said...

Here's what sounds like a simple tip but is really incredibly hard to do:
When you see her, remember you're seeing the disease when she acts out, not her.
Brain decline is a horrible, horrible way to go - who the person is dies but the shell of a body is left behind to torment the living. But as hard as it is, it is still your grandmother.
I wish you strength to get through this.

Anonymous said...

I just wanted to say that, although it sounds trite, and may be of little or no comfort, when death is expected, the family begins grieving ahead of the event, and that often means that when it occurs the emotional impact is blunted a bit. Sudden death, even when the person is elderly, really hits everyone in the gut hard. I know, having been in both situations with my parents, as well as having seen it during my career. With parents and grandparents, its tough to let go. But when it happens, try to remember that for Bubbe, the suffering has ended, even if you are in pain.

Jewish law, with its week of strict mourning, followed by three weeks of semi-mourning, is really psychologically very helpful. You are encouraged to "let it all out", but not to become obsessed with grief.

Name your first child after her. It really is very helpful.