I like it better when I have cute stories to tell about my grandmother. Like that time she mistook paintings of dogs in military uniforms for old family members. That was fun. Now the stories are confusing and muddled, sometimes mean, and somehow easier to keep to myself. But this is part of the story too.
When I take her to the bank, the teller doesn’t ask for identification because she knows who she is. I can tell by the cautious, expectant glances from behind the counter that they all do.
“See that boy over there?” my grandmother says to me. I turn to look and see a young man behind the counter. He is in his thirties with dark, curly hair. He sees us looking at him and smiles at my grandmother and she gives him a tight smile and a little wave. “I’ll tell you about him later,” she whispers.
We sit in overstuffed chairs in the waiting area. My grandmother tells me the boy with the curly hair tried to give her someone else’s money one time. She said to him, “whose money is this? It doesn’t belong to me,” and the boy just looked at her and pushed $120 through the slot in the window.
When she told this story to my father last week, the boy pushed $1,200 through the slot. In the story she told me, the boy got very upset and started shuffling papers until they sailed into the air. I don’t know if she included this in my dad’s story or if it’s a new detail. Neither one of us could tell when this story took place. She doesn’t drive anymore, so it couldn’t have happened recently.
My grandmother walks very slowly from the bank to the car. I would estimate she covers 1-2 yards per minute. Her legs hurt and she tires easily. The last place on earth she or anyone should want to go on a Saturday afternoon is a Walmart Supercenter.
“I need vitamins for my eyes and bananas,” she says peevishly.
“We don’t have time to all go in,” I say, exasperated. How did I not see this coming, the last minute demand and her reaction when I tell her no.
“Why did Audrey have to come with you?” my grandmother hisses. Audrey is the reason we need to get back – for a sleepover – and she is inches away in the back seat.
“She should have stayed home,” my grandmother says. “This must be terrible for her.” Yes, I think, but not for the reason she thinks. She says many other things that aren’t nice or true and I say things back that I wish I could keep in my head but they spill out anyway, ugly and mean. When we go inside Walmart, I tell Audrey my grandmother doesn’t mean what she says and she says, I know and the way she says it, I think she really does.
A few weeks ago, I read an article explaining that people with dementia may seem child-like, but it’s different. Children act out because they haven’t learned to control their speech and behavior. Old people with dementia act out because they lost skills they gained as adults. Their brains degraded to the point where they can no longer keep thoughts, often delusional and cruel, to themselves. I don’t know how to explain my own behavior except that I feel like an animal sometimes.
We are all quiet on the ride back from Walmart. When she gets home, my grandmother takes the five new bananas and places them on top of four browning bananas already in the bowl, singing to herself, “more monkey food.”
I set up a small microwave on her counter because last week she told me she keeps burning pans when she turns on her stovetop and forgets and walks away. Is this the smallest microwave they had? she asks (Yes.) Did they only have it in white? (no, but it’s the only color where you’d be able to read the buttons.) Why didn’t you get the kind where you only have to press one button? (I did.)
I put a red sticker on top of the express button for one minute. I fill a microwave safe mug halfway with water and put it on the glass turntable and close the door. I hit the red 1-minute button and the motor whirs for 60 seconds. “Now you try it,” I say. It is so simple, I know it has to work and I also know that somehow it will not.
She moves her face inches from the panel and squints in concentration. She grabs a magnifying glass from the counter and jabs her finger at the red button but nothing happens. I demonstrate again and she jabs again and, still, nothing. She says she is tired so I tell her to try again later and keep trying. If it doesn’t work out, I’ll take it back to the store and get more sauce pans for her to burn.
When we pull out of her driveway and start to drive away, Audrey reminds me to honk a few times. It’s something we always do and Audrey looks forward to it. Last year, my grandmother used to stand at the end of her driveway and wave at us until we disappeared from view. I’d watch as she got smaller in the rearview mirror and it always made me a little sad. Now she stays just inside her door and we honk and wave and then she is quickly gone from view. Now I don’t feel sad so much as a swoon of relief and guilt that stays with me through the night and is still there when I wake up.