I have a confession. I wasn't paying attention in church yesterday. My mind was going in a million different directions at once, thinking about all that I need to get accomplished in the next two weeks: research for my practicum, studying for and actually taking my comparative exams for my Master's degree (the comps are basically my school's theological equivalent to the bar exam), and all of the other family/life obligations that are on our calendar during that time frame. And then, for some inexplicable reason, my thoughts turned to my grandmother. She has had Alzheimer's for years, and I began to think that she would probably die within the next two weeks. This thought came out of the blue. There was no reason for it, nothing had occurred that would prompt such thinking. I felt that it was an awful thought, and so I tried to stifle it. But it wouldn't go away. For some reason, I just had this sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach that she was dying. I told myself that I was being ridiculous, and that perhaps if I was going to start hearing voices, I should seek professional help.
When I got home, there was a message from my brother, saying that if I hadn't talked to my parents for a couple of days that I should call him. I knew immediately that something was very, very wrong.
My grandmother had gotten sick the night before, and been taken to the hospital. This, in and of itself, wasn't that surprising. She's had trips to the ICU before, and each time made it out okay. She had a fever, was throwing up, and was diagnosed with a UTI. She was given medication and put on a breathing tube, and by Sunday morning, it appeared that her health was improving. The doctor did recommend that since her wishes were to never be put on any form of life support, that the breathing tube be removed. He did this not only to honor her wishes, but because he felt that she would be able to breath on her own. She was doing okay for a few hours, although the hospital did have to pump fluid out of her lungs at one point. My parents went down for lunch thinking this was just another hospital stay courtesy of Alzheimer's. When they came back up, the doctor told them she was dying. This was about 2:30 in the afternoon. That sinking feeling I had in church occurred about 4:30 p.m. I talked to my brother at about 5:30 p.m. By 7:30 p.m., she had died.
Part of me feels relieved at her death, and that in and of itself is a hard thing to accept. For anyone that has never watched someone die at the hands of Alzheimer's, it is death by inches, and it takes years. Rather than take your physical health first, Alzheimer's instead prefers to decimate you mentally, leaving you unable to remember simple things, although it does allow you in the beginning to be aware of the fact that you are unable to remember simple things. Then it takes your ability to say simple things, regardless of whether there are still things you'd like to say or not. Once it is convinced that it has properly imprisoned you in your own body, it then attacks your body as well. It breaks the communication between your body and mind, so you can't tell for instance when you're tired, which is why Alzheimer's patients wander. They just keep walking because they don't know they're tired. Incontinence? Check, Alzheimer's causes that too. When there's nothing left for Alzheimer's to take, the patient gets to sit listlessly in a wheelchair, unable to speak or care for themselves, until something like a common cold mercifully comes along and kills them because their bodies no longer understand how to or are capable of fighting it off.
Oh, and Alzheimer's likes to skip a generation, which means I'm up next.
So even though it sounds weird to feel relief at someone's death, there is a part of me that is glad, because it means that she is no longer suffering. But I'm still sad at her passing. I'm sad that I never said goodbye to her while she still able to understand. I'm sad we spent the last 10 years just staring at each other because that's all we could do. But I am glad that she is free.