My mother, Judy, has been in a nursing care centre for over seven years. Her affliction is Parkinson’s disease. She is wheelchair bound. It was a progressive loss – she lost the ability to stand, then to rise from a chair, then to walk, and now even to manage her personal needs. Caregivers stand in where her will and her muscles have deserted her. Every facet of daily life is assisted by others.
But there are some things no one helps with. Like Judy’s inability to open her eyes. Sometimes they are sealed shut. It’s not a case of will. You see her grimace as she struggles to force her brain to open the window to her soul for visitors. For those of us watching, it seems like trying to encourage the nasty gatekeeper at the Wizard of Oz castle to open up. You can call, you can tap, you can encourage the gatekeeper to let you in, but ultimately you can only petition. Dorothy had better luck hailing the wizard. Sometimes the door stays snapped shut.
While Judy frequently grimaces in pain, she rarely cries. Has Parkinson’s stolen her tears? We can’t be sure. But it has definitely stolen her voice. Visitors get little response from her by way of the spoken word. The effort to produce sound is enormous.
Judy’s great-granddaughter Devyn is five. She’s visited Grandma her whole life. She’s been taught by her mother to lavish love on her Grandma, to adore and respect her. She and her sister Violet, who’s three, fly down the hall at the care centre, their feet slapping the floor, their voices joined in giggles with the joy of running. Violet stops with a screech at the wheelchair. She’s a bit scared. But Devyn greets Grandma by throwing her arms around her, planting a big kiss on her lips and saying “I love you Grandma.” Grandma, unable to speak laughs silently and claps her hands.
On our last visit, we also brought along a three-pound puppy and the remains of a lemon meringue pie that my sister brought to me for Friday night dinner with instructions to bring some to Grandma – it’s a favourite. She was sure I’d pass the pie off as being from me. Friendly sibling competition for the title of “favourite child.”
As I bent to kiss Grandma goodbye I asked if she thought the puppy was cute. To her it was a loaded question. She looked me straight in the eye and with great effort said, “I love Devyn.”
Her meaning and direction were clear: don’t bother trying to pass off a future visit with a puppy as an A-class performance. For Grandma, a puppy, no matter how engaging, missed the mark. My marching orders were clear: bring me my great-granddaughter.
As we were walking to the car, Devyn turned to me and said: “Grandma spoke to me for the first time.” It struck me so deeply. Of course my experience of Grandma doesn’t need much sound – I’d already shared 60 years of conversation with her. It never struck me that newer entrants to the family had not. I asked Devyn what Grandma had said. Proud of her newfound standing as a communicant, Devyn stood straighter, looked me in the eye and recounted: “She said, I love you, Devyn.”
“And what did you reply?” I asked her. Her brow furrowed with the strain of engaging seniors with the obvious. “I told her, ‘I love you back.’”
The Jewish admonition to love one’s parents, to strengthen the chain from generation to generation, rang in my ears. I told Devyn that this was something to remember her whole life. It was very important. She has and will forever be a grandchild who was deeply loved by her Grandma.
As for the pie, Grandma will have to decide which of her favourites supplied it.