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No Going Back

Grandpa at the picnic table

July, 2008

On the 4th of July, the extended family held a gathering at an RV campground in Pennsylvania. A pavilion was rented, food contributions lined up, and then the day arrived.

As it happened, I had been to the RV campground many years ago. Those many years ago Grandma and Grandpa had a camper at the campground, and for two or so summers they took grandchildren to visit. I remember the dirt paths, the swimming pool, the creek, and the waterfalls. Now, over a decade later, I find myself returning. The journey there seems so familiar, and yet vague, as I make the last few turns. Then the campground is in sight, and the memories come back.

Everything looks the same at the campground, and yet it’s not. A few years ago a massive flood swept through the area, scouring out the creek, eating out embankments, washing up boulders, and knocking over trees. Much escaped the water’s ravages, but some things did not. And more than the land has suffered the ravages of time.

Grandpa watching

It has been nearly two years since I began caring for my grandfather, and watching him succumb to the ravages of Alzheimer’s. A decade more at least since I last visited the campground. Those many years ago Grandpa could walk. He could run, he could ride a bike. I have a memory of a summer day, Grandpa seated straddling a bike, sitting under the shade of a vacant pavilion. Now I pull the car up to a pavilion teeming with relatives, and get the wheelchair out of the trunk. I help Grandpa into the chair, and take him to the party. We have arrived late, because Grandpa can’t stay long.

Alzheimer’s drives its victims to their knees–figuratively and literally–as inch by inch, day by day, the battle is lost. Before, Grandpa staggered and stumbled as he tried to walk. Now he crawls aimlessly about on the floor unless I push him in the wheelchair or carry him, feeling so light and empty, in my arms.

Before he struggled to get to the bathroom in time and use the toilet properly. Now I change his diaper and give him a laxative to make sure he does go.

Before he couldn’t remember the last time he had taken a shower, and struggled to shave himself. Now I bathe him, and shave him, and dress him.

Before I cut up his food so he could feed himself. Now that fails, too. His hands shake and jerk clumsily as he tries to bring the spoon to his mouth. He grabs imaginary implements and food and wonders why nothing reaches his mouth. His mind wanders as he plays with the folds in his clothes, the food in front of him forgotten. It is a battle to eat, and one he is slowly losing, but which he desperately wishes to fight alone.

He is parked in front of the picnic table and I take a plate to the food buffet, looking for things he can eat. He does well enough for the meal, but his energy begins to fail with dessert. He consents to allow someone else to feed him the chocolate cream pie–some things he wants more than his dignity, or independence.

Grandpa watching the family

After the meal, I go to the falls again. Last time Grandpa ran on ahead, racing us little boys. This time, I go without him, following the path among the trees. The falls are still there, much the same. Perhaps they seem smaller than before, less threatening and less majestic. Time will sometimes do that. Still, the water cascades down, loud and uncaring, as if it thinks to drown out the world’s sorrows.

The days pass for Grandpa as a lonely vigil on the couch. Sometimes he sleeps a little while, but more often he looks at magazines, looking at the pictures and wondering what they mean, reading the words and wondering what they say, or else just sitting on the couch lost in his own thoughts. His world has shrunk so that if you are not right beside him, you are not there at all. He calls out, only to sometimes startle when you answer, or appear beside him.

Nights are the lost time. In darkness, nothing has meaning. He wakes in the darkness and speaks, “Mom. Mom? Are you there Mom? Mom. Answer me. Mom? I can’t see. Mom?” I hear his words, lying in the dark, but no answer I give is answer enough. He crawls about the room in the darkness like a blind man, but more than blind because nothing has meaning. He is lost in the bedroom, lost in the night, lost in his own mind, beyond the reach of any help to bring him back, until exhaustion takes him.

The end is coming. Slowly, perhaps, but inexorably, as every little loss brings one step closer the final defeat. But perhaps the battle should not be considered as lost. Maybe it is better to say that the battle is won, day by day, as with love he is helped to the end, with what dignity and grace can be mustered. If it is how we live that matters, then each day can be taken up in daily victory, or given up in daily defeat.

I leave the falls, the roar of the water quickly fading away behind me. Back at the gathering, Grandpa soon wants to leave. Two hours is all he can take. So we leave. I drive the rutted dirt path, taking it to the highway, and then home.

Ten years have passed. It feels like nothing has changed, and yet everything has. And there is no going back.