by Jennifer Rachel Simms-Coffey
I said good-bye to my beloved Nannie, my grandmother, in late November 2008. Alzheimer’s disease had ravaged her brain and taken away the grandmother I knew as a child. She was diagnosed in 2001 and steadily began to decline. Gone was the vibrant, eccentric gourmet cook, artist, and world-traveler, among other talents. She no longer helped me make cookies, sent me hand-drawn cards, or went on photo-safari in Africa. She now needed to be reminded who I was, what food she was eating, how to get dressed.
She moved in with us and I watched as my mother had to essentially care for a second child. It must have been difficult, having one child going off to college and not getting an empty nest as she had been expecting. It was challenging for all four of us (my parents, my grandmother, and I) as we all had our roles constantly redefined, changed, and renamed. I was no longer granddaughter, I was big sister. My mother was no longer a daughter; she was a mother to her mother. My father was just a visitor. Even the dog played along: he was now the cat.
Within these roles, our responsibilities and expectations also changed. We no longer ventured far from home. I would have to “baby-sit” my grandmother and make sure she didn’t try and walk down the stairs for fear of a fall. My grandmother would set the table; someone else would reset it with the proper dishes and silverware for each setting. We all learned new patience and creativity to try and keep her occupied and happy. We repeated ourselves often, as she did. The dog learned that he would have to go outside to do his business every 15 minutes because Nannie would forget she had already sent him out.
As her disease progressed, it became obvious that she was no longer safe in our home. My parents woke up in the middle of the night to find her almost outside in her nightgown in December in Michigan waiting for a friend to take her “home.” With much pain and regret, my mother made the decision to place her into an assisted living unit. Faithfully, she visited my grandmother nearly every day. For two years, my grandmother was in this facility before she went into hospice.
A few days before she was moved to hospice, she was having a particularly good day. I had taken a leave of absence from work so that I could be with my family and spend time with my grandmother, so I was sitting with her in the common room when she had a completely lucid moment, looked right at me and said, “I love you, Jennie.”
I think about this moment often. It is something I hold onto, for in all those grey, dark days where Alzheimer’s had taken over, this is sometimes a memory that shines like sunlight. It chases away all those negative thoughts and is how I like to remember Nannie in those last few weeks leading up to her death.
I miss Nannie every day and am grateful for everything she did for me throughout my life and everything she still does for me now. As I embark on a new career in social work focusing on older adults and their families, I find that she constantly in my mind. She is there as inspiration, hope, and a reminder that I want to help as many families as I can who are going through a similar experience to what we had.
I recently read an article that shared the concept of “saying hello again.” This lovely idea is that after a person is gone, instead of focusing on saying “good-bye,” you say hello again every time you see this person in you, or when you remember them. Now, every time I remember Nannie, in my school work, my practice, and my life I say hello.
I say “Hello Nannie!” whenever I see an orchid, when someone peppers their conversation with a Yiddish word, when I look at my wedding rings (they were hers), and when I see the little quilts scattered throughout my home made of fabric she painted.
The thought warms my heart every time I say hello. And in my mind I hear her return the greeting, “Hello, Pussycat.”