*Featured Image: “la Madre Monte A3” by Karin Star
“Bill Clinton called and asked that I go to Pakistan. I need a new slip and two new bras,” Grandma said to Mom over the phone.
It was October 2009. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton was preparing for a diplomatic mission. A press corps would accompany her. Ninety-one and immobile, Grandma planned to be one of the correspondents in Islamabad.
As Mom held the receiver to her ear, she wrote down the list of undergarments to keep her fingers busy while trying to understand what was happening.
For most of my life, Grandma was a prescription pill addict whose mood swings brought chaos into our lives. In my early memories of her, she’s obsessively cleaning. Her things were easier to control than people so she gave them more attention. If my sister or I spilled something, she released a high-pitched shriek that was disproportionate to the situation. Once, she bumped her ironing board into a wall sending a souvenir plate commemorating my great grandparents’ fiftieth wedding anniversary crashing to the ground. None of us—Dad, Mom, Sister or me—had been near it. Grandma devolved into sobs and screams. “You killed my mother!” she yelled at Mom. It was hard to know which was worse—that she blamed others for her mistakes or that she believed an image on a plate was alive.
When we left town for family vacations which were always tied to Dad’s work trips, Grandma found her way to the hospital. Usually, she took too many painkillers, then had to be admitted for what she called a dizzy spell. On one occasion, she feigned a heart attack after church. She popped a nitroglycerin tablet that she carried in her purse. Then, she actually did faint. While we were traveling, Mom got messages telling her she had to come home because her fragile mother was dying. Each time when we didn’t rush to Grandma’s bedside, she put on her sweet, lonely, old lady act for hospital staff or friends to gain attention. In different ways, she said, please visit me again since my ungrateful family won’t take care of me. By my early teens, I’d witnessed enough rage and manipulation that I wasn’t surprised when Mom told me of the brutal physical abuse she suffered at Grandma’s hands during childhood.
In the mid-90’s, when I was in my mid-twenties, my family moved from Montana to Southern California. Mom was an only child, so Grandma moved, too. We found her a one-bedroom apartment for fixed income seniors in the city of Monrovia. Each Sunday, we bought her groceries before family dinner. When we shopped, she always wanted the same items but every week she handed us a new list on which she had written the brand name, type, flavor, size, and sometimes, the quality she expected.
1 package Sargento 4-Cheese Mexican shreds 16 oz.
1 box American Beauty Thin Spaghetti 16 oz.
1 heart Romaine Lettuce (nice)
If we didn’t purchase exactly what was on the list or her perception of “nice” produce differed from ours, she called no later than Tuesday to find out why we didn’t do as instructed.
For at least forty years, Grandma lived as a super obese woman, then lost weight before I was born by measuring her food. Baggy skin hung from her arms, stomach and legs. She used support hose on her lower body to reduce chafing. Mom refused to eat as a child either because she didn’t like food or because starvation was a means of exerting control with an abusive mother. She finally ate enough when she became pregnant with me, wanting to feed the baby inside her. Although she was twenty years old, she grew two inches in height after I was born. Later, when Mom gained weight, Grandma took every opportunity to belittle her.
When a longtime family friend joined us during one of our weekly meals, Grandma spoke about Mom as if she wasn’t in the room. “I can’t believe how much weight she’s gained.”
After the friend left, I got close to Grandma’s face, then barked,“How rude! What a hurtful thing to say!”
Grandma gasped, surprised by my outburst. Since Mom rarely reacted anymore, Grandma thought she could drop an insult bomb with no response. She didn’t anticipate collateral damage.
“You apologize right now!” I demanded.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” Grandma condescended in a meek, breathy falsetto. “I didn’t mean anything by that. I’m sorry if I hurt anyone’s feelings.”
From that point on, I served as guard dog. If Grandma tried to hurt Mom, I confronted her with my less-than-gentle style. I didn’t care how old she was. She wasn’t going to abuse Mom anymore, if I could stop it.
When she called about her trip to Pakistan, Grandma was living in a nursing home in Newport Beach. Somehow, in one of the wealthiest cities in the country, we managed to find a facility that accepted a small social security income and medicare reimbursement to cover the monthly expense.
Born to a large family in West Virginia where her father worked for a railroad company, Grandma dropped out of school when she was in eighth grade, then moved to Billings, Montana as a young woman where she married a German-immigrant cowboy. She and my grandfather worked several jobs. Grampa worked full time as a custodian for an elementary school. Grandma nursed convalescent patients in the guest room of their house. They had a basement apartment that they rented to young couples as another source of income. Most of their vegetables came out of Grampa’s garden which was harvested and canned while in season. Grandma’s perfectionism was an asset as a seamstress and baker. She made clothes for herself as well as Mom.
In other words, she was a woman with little education who worked hard to live on little means.
When she slipped into delusions, she became a different woman altogether.
A few days after we realized Grandma was hallucinating, she was taken to the emergency room of the nearest hospital. When we arrived, she paid little attention to us, focusing instead on a television above her. She would be admitted, but we had to wait until a room was available.
Around five p.m., news anchor Anderson Cooper began his broadcast on CNN.
“Where have you been?” Grandma yelled at the TV. “I’ve been waiting for hours. I’m so relieved to see you. I didn’t know where you were.” She repeated these words again and again.
Mom and I looked at each other, mouths agape.
Finally, Grandma acknowledged our presence. “We’re engaged!” she said. She was joyful to announce plans to marry the news celebrity.
Mom and I held back our laughter, choosing to respond as anyone might when told of impending nuptials.
“Congratulations! That’s wonderful,” Mom said.
“I’m so happy for you,” I told her. I really was. The woman I had known as miserable was, suddenly, surprisingly jubilant.
We made no attempts to bring her back from her fantasy world.
The doctors did, however. They tried a variety of medications of varying strengths. Before they found something that worked, we had more chances to observe Grandma living the life she wanted, if only in her head.
When she was released from the hospital and back in the nursing home, we would sometimes visit her when she was in conversation with Fox News’ Shepherd Smith. In addition to her fiancé, she also was close friends with CNN’s Don Lemon. When he appeared on television, she would wave aggressively to make sure she had his attention before saying, “Hi, sweetie!” Once in a while, she introduced us to her TV friends.
Before the delusions, visiting Grandma in the nursing home was unpleasant. I had to cover my nose with my shirt to avoid gagging as I passed bins of soiled adult diapers. Patients in varying stages of dementia sat in wheelchairs outside their rooms. Some of them seemed frozen as they stared in the distance while others shouted a word or phrase repeatedly. Often, it was “Help me!” Once I made it past the obstacle course in the hallway, Grandma typically greeted me with things like, “Well, look who decided to finally see her ugly, old grandmother. You look like you’ve been eating well.”
But after she was delusional, Grandma became endearing. On my way to her room, I didn’t notice the smells or other patients as I anticipated what interesting stories she’d have. On arrival, she complained of nothing.
Even phone calls with her became fun.
“Quick! Turn on the TV,” Grandma said during another call to Mom. “I’m going to be on CNN. I’m directing the children’s choir.”
Beyond my addiction to food and tendency toward perfectionism, I had little in common with Grandma. In spite of the fact that I grew up in a lower to middle income family, I set my sights on Vassar College when I was eight years old. I graduated from there at twenty-two. In my work life, I remained an avid learner who took advantage of every professional class offered me. By the time I was thirty-seven, I was the president of a national marketing agency with a list of prominent clients including the largest company in the world. I wasn’t married. I didn’t have kids. I wasn’t great in the kitchen. I couldn’t sew. But I traveled extensively in the U.S. and abroad. I had a thriving career. I had a boyfriend who lived in Paris. I filled my mental treasure chest with memories of experiences never available to Grandma.
My freshmen year in college, I reported the daily news on our radio station with Kara, a co-anchor from California who became one of my best friends. She transferred to another school to major in journalism and eventually, became a freelance reporter for CNN, frequently appearing on Anderson Cooper’s show. While having dinner at Kara’s home, I told her about Grandma. Before I left that night, she gave me a baseball cap embroidered with the CNN logo that she had worn while reporting on wildfires. She also gave me branded pencils and a notebook.
For Grandma’s ninety-second birthday, I excitedly gave her all of the reporting gear my friend gave me. When she unwrapped the gifts, she looked at me confused, then muttered, “What is this?”
I’m not sure if my mistake was in joining together reality and fantasy or if I simply was treading someplace where I didn’t belong.
The more Grandma embraced her imaginary journalism career and social circle, the more I embraced her. Sure, her delusions were funny. Mom and I couldn’t make eye contact during visits for fear of uncontrollable giggling over whatever outrageous thing she would say. But more than that, I became sympathetic. Although Grandma’s misery throughout her life was directly related to a series of choices she made, I was old enough to know that none of us can fully understand the impact of bad decisions until after we’ve created a mess. In her fantasy world, Grandma experienced grace. As I watched her show me the life she wanted, I experienced forgiveness.
I had more grief when the psychotropic drugs took effect than when Grandma died eight months later. The medication flattened her. She was neither angry nor joyful. She was just waiting to die, finally slipping into an unresponsive state. We still made regular treks to the nursing home. We talked to her unaware of whether she heard us or not. We made peace. We thanked her for ways in which she cared for us. Mom told her it was okay to let go. When she finally passed, I hoped she transitioned to an afterlife where St. Peter greeted her with a press pass at the pearly gates. I want to believe he welcomed her into Heaven as its newest cub reporter.
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