BY MIKI MARKOVICH
I woke up crying this morning. I was dreaming that my grandmother, the only family member I’ve ever really known, was dying. When she passed in my dream, I awoke only to remember that she was really gone.
My relationship with Grandma-ma was a constant dichotomy: deep and shallow, straightforward and masked, flowing and complex. From the time I first gained awareness until the day she died, my world revolved around this woman with hair the color of a steady flame, a steely spine and an unmatched determination.
My grandmother wasn’t fond of children, but she loved me fiercely. To this day, I attribute any of my diva-like tastes to this redheaded force of nature, be it my love of expensive chocolate, my appreciation for all things that sparkle or my desire to have things just so. For instance, when I was about seven, she took me on a working vacation with her to Padre Island. When we escaped the muggy heat of the parking lot, entering the air conditioned oasis, the woman behind the counter asked if we wanted a pool or ocean view. My grandmother deferred to me as I explained that I wanted both. And that’s exactly what I got.
More than a decade later, after leaving for a college located in the Mid West, I received a call a month or so into my first semester. Grandma-ma told me she had moved to Memphis, promptly giving me her new address and phone number. Confused as to when this was decided, much less when it had actually transpired, she informed me that she wanted to be as close to my college as possible without getting too cold. Apparently Memphis was as far north as she could handle. I have to admit, there’s more than a bit of beauty to that.
Having moved around so often and having disowned most of her own family, she didn’t have a lot of consistent people in her life. Because of this, I always tried to fill the void. When I was in high school and college, I had my friends mail her cards and call her for special occasions. Later, as a high school teacher, I bribed students with extra credit to make her birthday cards in all shapes and sizes. I planned vacations, provided gifts and even drove 6,000 miles round trip to take her out for dinner at her favorite restaurant for her birthday.
Moving into her seventies, found her moving in with me. I loved having her in the house even as she drove me absolutely crazy waking me up to change light bulbs, telling me I was doing even the simplest tasks incorrectly and moving her furniture into every single room of my house. However, after just a year or two, she decided that Missouri was entirely too snowy of a state to live and that she could make better money back in a “real city” down south anyway.
When she return to Tennessee, things soon became chaotic. Nothing in my life had prepared me for the staggering pain of a journey through the jungle of dementia. I should have recognized the warning signs years before, but much like me, Grandma-ma had always been more than a tad on the eccentric side. Fiercely independent and self-sufficient, she always insisted she was fine. After my move to the West Coast, we continued to talk every week, but saw each other only a few times a year. It took a call from a manager at her 55-plus community to finally bring the message home. My grandmother could no longer live on her own.
After finding an apartment for her in an assisted living building with a friendly staff, my partner, her nephew, a few friends and I headed south to get her packed up and ready to roll to the Pacific Northwest. The road trip back was quite the challenge as dementia descended, she occasionally wandered away and became more difficult, threatening to stab the nephew and telling me I didn’t “give a shit” about her – harsh words from a woman I had never heard curse.
Although I thought I had been trying to convince her that everything was okay, I realize now I was actually trying to convince myself that anyone could get lost while walking a dog or forget to turn off a burner. At her new physician’s office, the word Alzheimer’s hung bleakly in the air. I struggled to remain conscious as blackness clouded my vision and bile ascended to my throat. I looked to my grandmother, my family, my rock and only saw fear clouding those crystal blue eyes – something I had never seen before.
Although I tried to fill in the blank spaces and take care of her basic needs, it soon became obvious we both needed help to stay mentally and physically sound. Caregivers were soon scheduled to assist with her medication and help clean up, so she and I could focus on some of the more fun aspects of our relationship, such as dinners out or catching up on shared shows. Simple interactions became more difficult as she often yelled and servers and no longer understood what a theater was or how it worked. Even worse, one of her caregivers convinced her I was a “monster” since I was gay. Although I’m sure Grandma-ma knew before, when confronted with the news, she was easily convinced by this manipulative teen to revoke my power of attorney and disown me. I told her I refused to go and whether she disowned me or not, I was family and would be right where I belonged by her side. It took a while, but eventually, she came around and we started fresh, with all of our cards on the table.
After more frequent trips to the hospital, I was told it was time to move her into memory care. After a lot of research, bluffing and a few shenanigans, I was able to get her admitted to the best one in the area. Every night I brought her dinner as she refused to eat the plain food they served. Each evening I’d sit by her side protecting her from one of the larger, more colorful residents who, when not having her hands taped inside oven mitts, hovered over the smaller residents with a fork and spoon ready to dip into their plates.
It was obvious the end was near even before the cancer diagnoses. I began to spend nights on a cot scooted against her bed. The all-night shuffling about of the nocturnal residents became my new normal, and I even began to pick up on their language, which simply seemed like gibberish just the month before.
The cancer quickly ate away at her, leaving a shell of the strongest woman I’d ever known behind. Although the doctors told me she no longer knew I was present, I played her favorite songs, watched our favorite movie (“The Gremlins”) on repeat and sang “You are My Sunshine” hundreds of times in a row. I held her hand, thankful that she still existed, thankful for her every breath.
She hung on longer than the medical professionals thought possible. One of the nurses took me aside, asking why I thought she hung on. I told him that she was waiting for someone to arrive and that he would be here any day. I explained that Grandma-ma was my entire family and that my partner wasn’t sure if she could carry the weight of what was to come, so she had called in my ex-husband for reinforcement. Brian had given notice at his job and was driving west from Arkansas. And, within 20 minutes of his arrival, I felt the air pressure in the room change; I saw her eyes, previously rolled back in her head for days on end focus on my face. Although she had lost muscle function at least a week before, her previously unhinged jaw squared up as a studious crease in her forehead appeared. I looked into her blue eyes one last time and told her everything in my heart.
“I love you Grandma-ma. I have always loved you with everything that I am. I don’t how I’m going to make it without you, but I will. Danielle and Brian are here to help me at I’m going to be okay. You raised me to be a strong woman and I am. You need to take care of yourself now. You can go. I’ll be okay. I promise.” She gave me one more brow furor as if to ask, “Are you sure.” I hugged her and kissed her, and just like that she was gone.
Until the moment she passed, I didn’t realize she was the only person in the world who knew me from childhood on. I also didn’t realize that my entire life had truly revolved around her. I felt empty, without purpose. It took a lot soul-searching and tremendous work to truly feel alive again. I still miss her each and every day, picking up the phone to call her when I’m sad, celebrating or scared. But, I am forever grateful I was with her through this journey and that at the end of it all, together we found clarity and understanding.
Miki Markovich is a seeker of beauty and truth, traveler of interesting roads, saver of furry souls, typer of words, iPhone lover and mac head. You can find her on Twitter at @mikimarkovich and @fiveminutezen. If you’re looking to go from pissed to blissed in five minutes flat, find balance or improve the quality of your life through self care, check out her website at fiveminutezen.com.