It was a beautiful Saturday in June. As my Father drove his Cadillac on Dundee Road, I gazed out at the sun shining on the passing trees making them a rich green that reflected on the windows.
I had come down from Minneapolis for Memorial Day weekend. In the car, my Mom sat in the front passenger seat and like two kids, my older sister Lynn and I were in the back seat. We were on our way to The Moorings, an independent Senior living facility. My Grandparents had lived there for several years in a cute little apartment. It was a great place for them to live. It didn’t have the same vibe as a retirement home. It wasn’t a sad place at all. They had their meals down in a lovely dining room, my Grandpa shot pool with his buddies and my Grandma enjoyed the friends she made.
My Grandparents had lived there for several years and after my Grandfather died, alone for the first time in nearly 72 years, my Grandmother was in the hospital wing, suffering from dementia.
“Does she know we are coming?” I asked.
“Probably not!” My Dad said.
“I’m afraid she doesn’t remember much of anything,” my Mom added.
“She remembers her songs!” My sister defended.
My Dad started to sing, “When you’re smiling, when your smiling, the whole world smiles at you…”
Lynn laughed. “That’s her favorite.”
“You should sing it to her.” My Mom said.
I was suddenly lost in thought. “Maybe…” I said.
I was remembering how in Florida, visiting them so long ago, every restaurant we went to seemed to have a piano. Not only that, there was always a pianist who was always ready to play for anyone who wanted to sing.
“Come on Robbie, go over to the piano player and tell him you want to sing.”
Once this started, it wouldn’t stop. She always insisted and persisted.
“No, He doesn’t want anyone to sing.” Should I hide under the table?
“Sure he does!” Grandma said, “I already asked him and he said he would be happy to play for you.”
I continued to resist, wishing I was the type of person who could jump up at any time and burst into song. I loved to sing, I loved Broadway musicals but I just didn’t like to be told like a robot to go and sing. It was a quality I wasn’t proud of. But none the less, I always resisted.
My Grandma reminded me of the character Mama Rose from the musical Gypsy.
Mama Rose was the classic overbearing stage mother who pushed her daughters to perform, even when they didn’t want to. A famous line from that show is Mama Rose (played by Ethel Merman) bellowing, “Sing OUT Louise!”
“Sing out Robbie!” I could imagine my Grandma saying.
Grandma loved to hear me sing. She had studied music and wanted to be a professional singer but having a family came first for her. It was back during the Depression and I am sure that had something to do with it too. But she still loved to sing and unlike me, she was someone who would get up and sing at any moment. When we would visit her at their home in Trout Valley, the evening wasn’t complete without Grandma Frieda sitting down at an ornate wood carved table, play her beloved zither and sing.
No-one seemed to take her singing seriously and my Grandpa Fritz would start clucking like a Hen
I felt bad for her. I could see the disappointment on her face when he did this.
“Sing “Memory” from Phantom of the Opera!” My Grandma called out.
As I took the microphone, I said, “It’s not from Phantom, it’s from Cats.”
“Come on Robbie, sing!”
Her relentlessness paid off because, in the end, I always got up and sang for her.
The pianist began the opening chords and off I went.
“Midnight, not a sound from the pavement
Has the moon lost her memory?
She is smiling alone….”
When it was over, I sat down, smiling, yet embarrassed, annoyed, yet happy to hear the applause.
“See! They love to hear you sing. You have such a beautiful voice.” Then she began to warble the song until my Grandpa started clucking.
As we pulled up to the Hospital, I asked, “How bad is it?”
“Her dementia?” my Mom replied.
“Yeah. Can she remember anything?”
“Sometimes. It depends. It comes and goes.” Mom undid her seat belt prompting all of us to do the same.
Lynn opened the door on her side. “She can hardly remember peoples names. Last night we came over and she didn’t know who I was. Once we showed her pictures and I talked with her, I think she started to remember me.”
“No,” my Dad said, “She doesn’t even remember me! She doesn’t remember anybody anymore.”
It started with my Grandma forgetting that Grandpa had died. Every time my Dad would visit her, he had to break the news to her that her husband had died and she would cry. Each and every time he visited her he had to go through the same thing. How awful to have to go through this over and over again. One time when my Dads sister, my Aunt Marlene told her that Grandpa had died, Grandma looked away sadly and just when Marlene thought she would start crying, Grandma turned to her and with a wry smile and asked, “Am I seeing anyone new?”
I got out of the car and my Dad winced, “You don’t have to slam the door so hard. The sun was hot now but a wind was blowing. I loved the first warm breezes of summer.
I had visited my Grandparents several times at their condo at The Moorings but had never been to the Hospital. I hated Hospitals. They were so depressing. My Grandma lived in a room with another woman with Dementia. They had no idea that they had something in common, let alone each others names. As we walked in, my Dad told us how crazy Grandma had become.
“One night she went around and collected as many lamps as she could to bring to her room.” My Dad said. “She told the staff that she couldn’t read her magazines.” He rolled his eyes.
As we got in the elevator, he told us how old she looked. She was in her 90’s and I thought she looked great for her age.
“Really?” I asked. “She always looked so much younger than she was.”
“Not anymore,” my Dad said pressing the button to the second floor. “She’s not the same.”
“You’ll see,” my sister said sadly. “It broke my heart when she didn’t know who I was.”
The elevator door opened and we were on the second floor. Everything felt cold and sterile. Brick walls painted a light creme color.
“I have to go to the bathroom,” I said.
“Ok.” My Dad said.
“It’s to the right. So you go that way” my Mom said pointing. She and I were so much alike. We always made jokes in serious situations.
“Grandmas room is to the right. We’re going that way” she said, pointing to the left with a goofy smile. Then she was serious. “ We’ll go get her. Meet us in the family area. Its just past the Nurses station.”
They started down the hall and I watched them for a moment. On holidays when everyone was together, I always liked retreating to my room. I could hear my family laughing down in the basement den. It was far enough away. I liked to take breaks. Now, I was nervous and my need to go to the bathroom wasn’t just nature calling, I needed to step aside for a moment to collect myself. I felt stupid for living so far away and not seeing her more often. When was the last time she was herself? When was the last time she annoyed me, with her persistence, trying to get me to sing?
As I came down the hall, I could hear my sister talking to her. In a loud and enunciating tone she said, “Hello Grandma Frieda! This is Lynn. I’m your Granddaughter, Lynn.”
“What?” I heard my Grandma say. “Who are you? Do I know you?” she said.
As I approached I could see my sister turn, take a few steps away and start to cry.
The Grandma Frieda we all knew and cherished was gone. No more playing her zither and singing. No more making Beef Stroganoff on Christmas Eve. No more silliness and party hats and even though I acted like it bugged me, no more bragging to everyone in earshot that I was her grandson, the singer. “Come on Robbie, sing something. Sing a song!”
Lynn was crying harder now. My Dad was saying hello to her and she didn’t know who he was.
“This is Gary, Mom. Gary and Elsie. We are here to visit with you.”
I could see Grandma from behind sitting in an overstuffed, comfortable chair. My Mom stood back, she seemed to be able to detach herself from the sadness. My Dad looked frustrated and tried to hide how sad he was. This was his Mom. Gone. His Mom had faded away.
I walked into the family area and came around the chair. My Dad was right. She looked old and frail and grayer than she had been the last time I saw her. I wondered if, despite her dementia, I would still be able to see her in there, see my Grandma Frieda in her eyes? Would I be able to see any tiny trace of who she once was?
When I came around to stand in front of her, I saw her full on in her rose pink tracksuit. She was lost and vacant. Then, she looked up and saw me, her gray eyes were suddenly blue. She stretched out her arms. “Robbie!” She said.
My Dad gasped.
My sister stopped crying.
My Mom smiled.
I started to sing.
This story is dedicated to the lady herself,
my Grandma Frieda (Wagner) Dorn