There she was, both feet planted on the headboard, staring at the enormous portrait hanging above her bed. She admired the man in the picture and the work of the artist, not knowing that it was actually she who had painted it. She couldn’t place him, but she knew him. She would do this so often that eventually the painting was removed. It was dangerous for her to flip around in bed all the time and it confused her to wonder who the man was and why she seemed to know this piece so well. Her son took it home with him and hung it on his own wall. He could appreciate the memory of his father without doing somersaults off the furniture.
“Who is that man?”, she would ask with familiarity in her eyes. “That’s Cy.” we would explain for the hundredth time. Going into too much detail was usually avoided to prevent her from the frustration that comes with attempting to comprehend an entire sentence. “Oh, yeah. Where is that boy?” A simple, “He went home.” and a few words of redirection would usually satisfy her.
Grandbetty had a few teary episodes in her two years as an Alzheimer’s patient, but usually was a very happy lady. She was always laughing and joking around. She was another version of a woman I used to know. As far as I’m concerned, I have three grandmothers: My mother’s mother, my father’s mother (Before Alzheimer’s) and my father’s mother (After Alzheimer’s). The lady who slowly slipped away from me a few years ago is someone I will introduce at another time. Today is focused on my third grandmother. The one who didn’t know my name, but loved me anyway. Today is her birthday, and in honor of almost making it to ninety-one, here are the things I miss most about Grandbetty after Alzheimer’s.
Her genuine concern for others– There is not a single person who worked with Grandbetty that did not, A. Call her Grandbetty and B. Know how much she loved them. She was always concerned about each and every person that came in contact with her. If you looked tired, she would ask you in her sweet southern voice, “Are you tiiiireed, honey?” She would hold your hand and try to get you to lay down in her bed and take a nap because she really wanted you to feel better. I knew how big her heart was my entire life, but was unable to appreciate its true capacity until I saw how she cared for so many people that she could not even name.
Her killer flirtation skills- Y’all. I am not even kidding. This woman was a playa. She knew how to flirt with every good looking man that came within her line of vision. She would pat a man on his shoulder and swing her head back and say, “Oh, stop it!” with a sparkle in her clear blue eyes. When a new man was admitted into our unit, Betty was right there rolling up for a meet and greet as Head of the Summerhill Welcome Committee. Usually, the new man was very appreciative. Sometimes, new men came with old wives who did not appreciate Betty’s flirtatious tendencies, but most of them understood. SCANDALOUS!
Her hilarious ability to laugh at inappropriate things- Lady falls on the floor. Betty laughs her ass off. Man chokes on his beverage. Betty laughs her ass off. Woman takes her shirt off in dining room. Betty laughs her ass off. You get the idea. One time, a resident yelled in a very angry voice, “I am getting on this bus right this second and going to Jacksonville!” Betty smiled and mockingly declared, “Me too!” and laughed her ass off. Taking her to the shower or helping her get dressed was always a hoot. She would hum the Sand Dance and move her shoulders around in a “We’re all girls here and I’m proud of my body” kind of way and laugh and laugh and laugh.
Her love of chocolate-This woman wouldn’t touch her green beans or salad, but give her 12 pounds of chocolate and she’d eat all of it at an alarming rate. I’m a firm believer in giving old people whatever the hell they want. They’ve lived a long life and have spent long enough following dietary suggestions. If my Grandbetty wanted nothing but chocolate cake and Coca Cola for the rest of her life, so be it. Every time I came to visit, I’d bring her a chocolate milk shake. Even in the last few weeks of her life, when she didn’t communicate with us much at all, the woman would down a frozen treat from Chick-fil-a. Whenever I eat chocolate or drink a shake, I think of her. I think of her A LOT.
Her appreciation of art– Something as basic as naming the colors of the cars in the parking lot would fascinate her. She could look at anything and value the beauty of it. A tree. A cat. A photograph in a brochure. She couldn’t specify what she loved as clearly as she would have liked, but I could tell when she was observing something closely and appreciating its details. She would point at something, anything really, and say, “Look at thayut!” Maybe she saw a tree, “It’s so. So. So. Well, biiiig!” We took her to the Georgia National Fair only a month before she passed away. Dad and I stopped at each painting in the art exhibit and watched as Grandbetty’s face would light up. I could tell which paintings she loved the most when she held her hand up as if presenting it to a live studio audience.
Her grace– Even when laughing at inappropriate situations or refusing to take her medicine, she was graceful. Each movement she made was soft. Her expressions, her voice, and her attitude was smooth and gentle. She had a way of pulling you in. Strangers felt drawn to her. She would hold a person’s hand, look into their eyes and the calmness would wash over them. She even died gracefully. Holding my hand, breathing deeply and smoothly, until she just….stopped.
Grandbetty left me a better person. She died last year and I still have people who worked with her telling me how much they miss her, and that it just isn’t the same without her. The love that she spread with just the nursing home staff has really spoken to me. I want to be remembered by my caregivers with the same fondness as she is. I want people to remember me, even if I’ve forgotten who I am. I want to learn to see people the same way as she did. She saw the best in everyone, even when those people didn’t see it in themselves. Grandbetty, the Alzheimer’s patient, touched lives in incredible ways and didn’t even know it. That is how amazing she was. My third grandmother wasn’t just the silver lining to a cloudy disease, she was the sunlight pouring through.