We were warned: “Prepare yourselves; it won’t be easy or pleasant. She may not recognize us. She is different than when you last saw her.” Consequently, we were dreading the visit. Death was difficult for us to handle and accept, but the wretchedness of mental deterioration in old age scared and frightened us.
The last time we had visited my husband’s maternal grandmother, she had welcomed us into her cozy apartment, hosted us for coffee and cake and then beaten us all at a game of Gin Rummy, her favorite. She was a shrewd player. This time when we entered her private room, on the first floor of a surprisingly cheerful and fully amenitized senior citizen home, she was curled up in her bed with her eyes closed. She looked smaller than the formidable woman I had met years ago. My mother in law festively announced our presence, gingerly trying to wake her. Oma groggily opened her eyes and looked at us. Her blank stare, lacking any sign of recognition of her daughter or her grandson, was heartbreaking. My husband swallowed hard and looked at me, on the verge of tears. I had to grit my own teeth to prevent the heavy rock in my throat from unleashing a waterfall of tears. My mother in law, with incredible strength and humor, somehow managed to fill the solemn air with light conversation, asking her mother how she was doing, asking her if she wanted to join us for coffee and cake, asking her if she had been sleeping long, questions that she knew would not be answered, but were still asked. Oma did not reply.
As a cheerful and friendly nurse helped to transfer Oma from her bed to a wheelchair, my husband and I waited outside in the hallway. The whimsical DIY arts and crafts projects displayed on the walls; the ubiquitous antiques like old wool spinners, treadle sewing machines, and old typewriters; aquariums; rabbit pen with rabbits and hamsters; and tall cages of colorful chirping birds reminded me more of an elementary school than a senior citizen home. Of course, the overabundance of Christmas-themed decorations added another layer of festive atmostphere to an already charming environment. I thought how different the homes were compared to the somber, sterile ones in the U.S. that I had visited and volunteered at during my twenties.
We wheeled Oma out of her room and as we passed by the common lounge, with its massive Christmas tree, decorated tastefully in bright lights and ornaments, we said hello to the other residents, who sat motionless in their wheelchairs, at round tables, listening to Christmas music, watching television or just starting out at us. Along the festive hall, several residents sat, reading books or playing cards and games. The crafts room, situated at the end of the long L-shaped building, offered a quiet oasis from the rest of the home. We decorated the small round table with a Christmas tablecloth. We laid out the cups and saucers and poured the coffee from the Thermos we had brought. We filled the plates with Christmas Stollen, chocolates truffles and Mandarin oranges. When Oma didn’t make any effort to eat, her daughter picked up a truffle from her plate and offered it to her. She took it and chewed deliberately and slowly. I had no appetite so I just sipped on my cup of water. My husband watched his grandmother but said nothing. Suddenly, my mother in law, who had been maintaining an air of cheerful conversation for us all, took her mother’s face lovingly in her hands, stared into her eyes and broke down, as she cried, pleading desperately, “Mother, come back to us.” This sudden display of pitiful emotion caused both me and my husband to tear up as well. I knew that if I looked at my husband, the tears would flow incessantly; so I looked at a spot on the wall, bit down on my tongue and tried to still my heart and keep the tears at bay. But even as I was fighting to remain composed, I was torn: “Why do we fight so hard to refrain from showing our real emotions and preventing tears to flow? Is it really that bad? Why are we so afraid to show our own helplessness in a situation that we will all face one day?”