She recognized me today.
It has been about three weeks since she recognized anyone; since she has responded in any way other than to cry out with each exhaling breath when she’s awake. We went in one day and she knew each of us, knew how many children she had, knew how many grandchildren she had, great-grandchildren, brothers, sisters. She was somewhat hard to understand but she could talk and sometimes make sense. The next day her face was a blank stare. Her right eye was drooping and barely opened. The right side of her mouth was hanging and drawn. She responded to nothing, not our voices, not the chicken she loved at lunch. Nothing.
When I was little, Nanny babysat me while Mama worked. She lived in an apartment house on Main Street in Brundidge next door to Mrs. Kelly and the Post Office. The first thing we did each day was pull a chair to the stove and she let me scramble eggs for our breakfast, with her help. Then around 10:30 we would walk to Mr. Belcher’s store on the corner at the only traffic light in Brundidge. Mr. Belcher would slice bologna and wrap it in the white paper for customers while I watched. He had coca-colas in little six ounce glass bottles and had the bottle opener for them mounted to the counter where the cash register was. Nanny always bought me a glass bottle coke, a pack of cheese crackers (the kind with the little red stick you used to spread the cheese on the cracker), and a box of macaroni and cheese. Once a week we walked on down the street to Bill’s Dollar Store and she bought me a Little Golden book. I had the best collection; The Pokey Little Puppy, The Little Engine that Could, Richard Scarry’s Best Little Word Book Ever, The Little Red Hen, Scuffy the Tug Boat, and Tootie. I had them all. I still do.
After our trip downtown, we came back home and I waited to hear the whistle blow. Each week day in Brundidge the whistle would blow at exactly twelve o’clock. I don’t know where the whistle came from but you could hear it all over Brundidge. When I heard the whistle I knew it was time to make the macaroni. At the first sounds of the whistle blowing I could hear the chair scraping across the tile floor. Nanny was pulling it back to the stove so I could stand there with her and make our macaroni and cheese. Sometimes she let me put the butter in; sometimes she did it because I would eat more butter than I would put in the macaroni. After our macaroni was done, we’d eat and then decide what we would do for the afternoon. Sometimes we would watch television, Mr. Rodgers and Sesame Street. Sometimes we’d listen to the radio, Elvis and George Jones. Sometimes we’d take a nap.
Sometimes Billy would be in town and we would go on trips. Billy Holmes was one of Nanny’s boyfriends and I really loved him. He let me sit in the front seat between him and Nanny and I always got to decide where we went. I got the map out of the glove compartment and we went down the blue roads, the red roads, and the yellow roads. Sometimes I let Nanny pick which color our road would be but she usually let me do it anyway. She said that was my special treat. I don’t know where we went but I can’t seem to find those blue, red, or yellow roads on the maps anymore. They became harder to find after he died and especially after she got sick.
I got older and started kindergarten but I still stayed with Nanny sometimes after school. She came to most of my school events like awards days, class days, and of course graduation. I was the first of her children and grand-children to graduate from high school, and she said she was so proud of me for graduating and with honors.
Although I had graduated we continued with our Christmas tradition that had begun when I was in about the seventh or eighth grade. The weekend after Thanksgiving I spent the weekend with Nanny and we put up her Christmas tree and decorations, just me and her. None of my other cousins, none of her other children even though two still lived with her. After we got the decorations up, we would make all sorts of candies; divinity, peanut butter balls, chocolate covered cookies, chocolate covered peppermints; and cakes-chocolate, peanut butter, and red velvet. The last Christmas we did that at her house was in 2004. She had her first major stroke right after that and we spent Christmas with her in the hospital in Dothan. She hasn’t been home for Christmas since then.
She lived with Mama for a little while after she came home from the hospital in January, we thought it would just be temporary while she had therapy, but she could do very little for herself and Mama was not in the greatest of health at the time. I tried to help as much as I could but it was still hard for the two of us when we both had families to look after in addition to her, and I also had school because I had started back to TROY, and my job at the dance studio. Around Easter time Mama had to have surgery. We had no other choice but to put her in Troy Health and Rehab. It was a rough adjustment for all three of us. I was going out there every day to see her and it was so hard for me to leave her, she cried and so did I. She just wanted to go home but my uncles wouldn’t help with her. They had left her by herself before.
We went to her house to pack things up. I said if Nanny wasn’t going to be there, none of the things she had paid for would be either to be ruined or uncared for. It hit me when packing her things up that she really was at the nursing home for good. Even with therapy, she would never be able to live on her own or care for herself again. I would never sit at the kitchen table with her again making Christmas candies and cakes. I’d never put the tree up in her house again. When we were putting her stuff in storage I kept out the ornaments she had made herself and I put them on my Christmas tree each year now.
She eventually adjusted to the nursing home. Occasionally she would still cry and ask to come home but I would talk to her and she would be laughing when I left. About three years ago she had a bowel rupture and was in critical condition. The doctors said she probably wouldn’t survive the surgery and if she did, she wouldn’t make it through the night. But, she did. Then two years ago she had double pneumonia and suffered a heart attack at the same time. The same doctor said he doubted she’d make it through the night. Yet, she proved him wrong again. She was awake and talking, although it was mostly garbled because of the speech difficulty from the stroke in 2004, but she was alive.
Even after the stroke she always knew who people were when they went to visit her, regardless of how long it had been since she had seen them. She would remember that Chandra was coming to see her on the weekends when she worked her shifts as an LPN at Troy Health and Rehab, and she knew Chandra would bring her some chicken for lunch. She still had use of her hands, even though she was confined to her wheelchair since the bowel rupture and heart attack. Her mobility just deteriorated after that. But she knew who I was.
But three weeks ago, Chandra called from work. She was upset. Nanny didn’t know who she was and she wouldn’t talk to her. I called Mama and we went to the nursing home. Nanny just cried out, nothing in particular, just cried out. She gave no response when we talked to her. She didn’t answer yes or no like she had done before, she didn’t look at us. She wouldn’t take the chicken we tried to feed her. It got worse after that. She would be asleep every time we went to see her and we couldn’t wake her up. We shook her, called her name over and over and she wouldn’t wake up. Her face looked swollen.
Chandra called this morning and said Nanny was sick, they’d taken her to the ER but the hospital sent her back to the nursing home. She had a very severe urinary tract infection, she was clammy, had labored breathing, and her color was not good. Chandra was scared. When we got there, Nanny was asleep. I shook her and called her name and she opened her eyes. She turned her head and looked at me. I put my face close to hers and asked if she recognized me and she said yes. I saw the light of recognition in her eyes. Then it was gone. The blank stare was back. She tried to go back to sleep but I kept talking. I wanted her to come back to me. I talked about the house I was moving into, one she had lived in several years ago. I asked if she remembered the house, and again the light of recognition and she said yes again. But, all too soon it was gone again. I kept talking. The gnarled, claw that had become her hand slowly came out from under the blanket and she rubbed my cheek with it. She knew me. I know she did. She closed her eyes and went back to sleep.
When she went back to sleep Chandra started talking about how much better she looked now, how she was responding so much better. She talked about being scared and she thinks Nanny is ready to go home. I wasn’t thinking right apparently because I asked how she thought Nanny would take care of herself at home, which was dumb. I was the dumb one. That isn’t the home Chandra meant. I didn’t want to hear it or for her to say it. Nanny was asleep and could hear her. She’s not ready to go “home”. I’m not ready for her to go. Call me selfish I don’t care. She is the only Nanny I have, my only living grandparent. I’m not ready for her to go, she can’t. It’s not time. She stroked my cheek. She responded to me.
She recognized me today.