by Colleen Lanier
The last Thanksgiving I spent with my grandmother was dismal at best. It was 2008, and she was many years into her battle with dementia. The nursing home she lived in was 45 minutes away, and as I drove through a cold Florida drizzle I tried to rein in my expectations. My grandmother hadn’t recognized me for several years, yet every single time I visited a part of me hoped she would know who I was. We had been very close, and it was hard to accept that she no longer knew that.
The nursing home was far from fancy, but it was staffed by people who treated the residents with love, respect and dignity. My grandmother received excellent care, and when I entered her room, she was sitting in her wheelchair nicely dressed, holding the stuffed pumpkin I had given her the last time I visited. I walked up to her, crouched down so I was at eye level, and smiled.
“Happy Thanksgiving, Grandma. You look lovely today.”
She glanced at me briefly, no hint of recognition in her eyes, and returned her attention to the pumpkin, picking at the seams.
“Shall we head to the dining room?” I asked, reaching down to unlock the brakes. As we wheeled down the hallway, I pointed out all the decorations on the walls. The staff had done its best to make the day special for the residents and family, and the dining room was beautifully decorated with cornucopias, pumpkins, Indian corn and gourds. The centerpiece at our table was a large crepe paper turkey, and as I soon as I pushed Grandma’s wheelchair into position, she reached for the turkey, pulling off one of its legs before I could intercede.
She bit into the cardboard leg, chewed a few times, and then spit it out, handing the remnants to me with an emphatic “No, no, no . . . NO!”
A passing staff member patted my shoulder. “Don’t worry about it honey. The turkey coming out of the kitchen will taste a whole lot better. I’ll get your plates right quick before your Grandma tries to eat any more decorations.” She laughed as she walked away, and my grandmother smiled at the sound. Her smiles were increasingly rare, so it was nice to see her happy.
A beautiful plate was put in front of her, and Grandma dove in, forgoing the silverware and eating the stuffing with her hands. When I tried to cut her turkey for her, she swatted my hands away, and pulled it apart into something close to bite-sized pieces. When she finished her meal a few minutes later, the table was a mess and big splashes of gravy were running down the front of her blouse. I tried to brush the crumbs from her face, and she once again batted my hands away.
I stayed a few hours more, reading to her until she looked sleepy. I kissed the top of her head, told her I loved her and would be back to see her on Sunday. I didn’t expect a response, and I didn’t get one.
I drove home in silence, tears welling in my eyes as I mourned the loss of the grandmother I had known. The woman who taught me how to make cranberry salad, showed me how to set a beautiful table, with whom I had spent countless Sundays, crocheting while we watched football. I missed her, and I railed against the disease that had taken her away.
Grandma died in August the following year, and I mourned all over again. I wish I could say she was the only loved one I watched go down the path of dementia, but she was just the first of many. Joan, who was like a second mom to me from the time I was in high school, was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s shortly after my grandmother’s death. I shared a Thanksgiving meal with her in 2011, a few months after she had moved into memory care.
It was a remarkably familiar situation. I watched family members of other residents struggle to help their loved ones. Some families tried to coax their loved ones to eat, some tried to remind them of manners, and others simply watched, the feeling of helplessness evident on their faces. As Joan stuck her index finger into her mashed potatoes, I realized that I had learned a lot from my time with Grandma. I had learned what really mattered.
Food was one of the last pleasures left to Joan, and it didn’t matter how she ate her Thanksgiving dinner. It only mattered that she enjoyed it. While she ate, I entertained her with a story about preparing a Thanksgiving dinner with my second mother 25 years earlier. I told her how this woman had taught me the secret to perfect stuffing: when mixing the ingredients you had to raise the spoon high to make sure it “plopped” back into the bowl when the spoon was turned over. No plop — dry dressing.
Joan laughed as I demonstrated the technique she had shown me in 1985. She was completely unaware I was talking about her and me, but it didn’t matter. It only mattered that she was laughing. Joan died this past February, and while I mourned her passing, I rejoiced that she was finally free from the Alzheimer’s.
Last Thursday I helped prepare a Thanksgiving dinner, volunteering to be in charge of stuffing and cranberry salad. My stuffing passed the “plop” test before going into the oven, and my grandmother’s cranberry salad came out of the mold exactly as it was supposed to. As my friends and I sat down to enjoy the meal we had prepared, we each shared Thanksgiving memories. I told them about Grandma and Joan, both before and after dementia entered our lives.
Thanksgiving is a day in which we should reflect on our lives and recognize our blessings. As painful as it was to watch both women I loved slip away, I am blessed by what wasn’t taken away from me. Precious memories of the time we shared, recipes that will grace my table for years to come, and stories that live on.
For that, I am thankful.
Colleen Lanier is a registered nurse with a private consulting firm, and the author of Miles from Home and The Scenic Route. Visit Colleen on her Facebook page.