It is commonly believed by the members of my family (aunts, uncles, cousins included) that my grandmother has dementia. Ever since she was in the hospital last year, she has not been the same grandmother.
The bouts of depression she’s experienced throughout her life intensified her personality change, which ranges from 0 to “I want half.”
It does not matter to whom she is speaking—strangers, friends, church officials, family members—she’ll spill secrets and complain about her divorce, which she insists isn’t over.
“I want half,” she’ll say. “I get half.”
She can’t remember day-to-day events, and she often yells at one (or all) of her four children. A few weeks ago, for example, she argued with my mom about a quilt that my mom supposedly “stole” from her.
“I want it back. It’s mine.”
“Mom, I don’t have your quilt,” my mother frustratingly stated into the phone. “You have your quilt. I gave it back to you when we moved 15 years ago.”
“No, you’re hiding it from me. You want it for yourself.”
“Mom! I DON’T HAVE IT.”
“Well,” grandma said angrily. “Someone has it.” And with that, she hung up.
(Three days later, my grandmother unearthed the quilt from a trunk buried in one of the two bedrooms she uses for “storage.”)
Grandmother’s forgetfulness is not the only symptom of what we believe to be dementia. She’s an insomniac, and when she awakes, she’ll head to the casino. So, at two, three or four in the morning, there will be a 76-year-old woman on the highway, hindered by her cataracts and driving 15 miles an hour below the speed limit.
Grandma talks too damn fast to be able to form coherent sentences. She’s sadistic and strikes out against her own family members. She experiences split-second personality changes. She doesn’t recognize danger.
“Mom, listen to me,” my mother recently pleaded. “You can’t walk around outside the casino by yourself at four in the morning. You’re going to have your purse stolen.”
“No I won’t. I’m fine.”
“Mom, you’re not being careful. You’re a 76-year-old woman with no teeth and a cigarette. You’re an easy target.”
“I’m fine. Nothing has happened to me.”
Not a single family member has any patience, mostly because she doesn’t trust us. “You’re on my list,” she’ll say. “I can take you out of the will, you know. I can do that.”
She called me recently to complain about my uncle, who is a freelance carpenter. My uncle has built my mother many wonderful pieces (including a gorgeous entertainment center) and also redid their sister’s master bathroom. He’s good; he’s the go-to guy, the handyman, Mr. Fix-It. Want a new car? He’ll help. Need a new air conditioner? He’ll find one and install it. New kitchen cabinets? He’ll crank those suckers out, 400 a year.
Grandmother, however, has her own plans for him.
“My son still hasn’t built me that deck I want,” she’ll argue.
“Grandma, you live in the city now. You can’t just ... do that. You have to have permits.”
“No I don’t. It’s my house. I can do what I want.”
“No, grandma.” I shake my head. I laugh in silent disbelief. “You have to have a permit.”
“No! You’re not listening! You need to yell at your uncle and tell him to build me one. I want one. It’s my house. I can do what I want.”
And by, “I can do what I want,” she means complain and moan about her four children and 12 grandchildren. She’ll say we’re disappointments, that we’re horrible. That we’re not smart. That we’re rude and uncaring. That we’re failures. She’ll yell at me for going to an out-of-state school. She’ll yell at mom for being tired. She’ll yell at both of her sons, at all of her grandsons. She’ll talk about finances, complain about church, and use the words “Oriental” and “Chinamen” when talking to strangers. She’ll tell them about how she wants half.
She embarrasses me.
That being said, she insisted throughout my entire graduation party that I open her gifts.
“Grandma, I’ll open them when everyone is gone. Now isn’t the time.”
“I want to see you open them.”
I gestured around the living room, to where five of my college friends sat. “Not now.” I looked at the blue cup she was holding. It held several branches of bridal wreath, the flowering shrub just beneath my window. I knew mom would be upset that grandma helped herself. “Take that outside, Grandma. I would prefer that the giant spider dangling from that branch remains outside.” I pointed at the nickel-sized arachnid descending towards the carpet.
“There’s no spider.”
My friends chimed in. “No, there’s a spider.”
“I can’t see it.”
“That’s because you have cataracts.”
Her cataracts hinder her chronic shopping as well, because, when I opened my gifts and pulled out a vomitrociously colored green “sweater,” she exclaimed, “I just saw that on the hanger and said, ‘This is so Dawn. This is her.’ I was so happy.”
She may have been happy, but the shirt was definitely not "me."
I thanked her for the shirt anyway, commented on the bedazzle-style beading near the neckline. “Thank you; it’s certainly different!” I folded the shirt, which smelled like cigarette smoke, of course, and set it on the floor with the other things I had already pegged for Goodwill.
After my grandma left, I placed all of the items--an open bottle of vitamins among them--on my floor and took a picture. Mom walked into my room and, after commenting on how the items made my room smell like emphysema, asked why I was taking a picture.
“Oh, you know,” I shrugged. “In case I start a new blog or something. I’ll call it, ‘Shit My Grandma Gave Me.”
She laughed. She laughed so hard that she sat down on my bed to cry.
I just sat on the floor and smiled triumphantly. My first genuine smile in days.