Ghost Story: When family past loops around the present

5 years ago


Out of the blue, he texts me one day, “I have to talk to you about Grandma”.  My heart skips a little, fearing the worst.  I’m already conditioned to regard unusual communications warily.  Call me after 9, I get a hiccup of “Oh God who died?”.  This is unusual for someone of my tender years, but there it is.

He never calls me.  Only texts.  He rarely, rarely returns my calls.  Another oddity: unlike most people my age, I don’t have a smart phone.  Nor do I have a fancy text plan. I will call you back, 9 times out of 10, because I can’t afford to text all day.  I suppose that never occurred to him, as both his kids are hooked up with the latest models.

I call him back, and he says he needs to talk to me, but can’t right now.  Can he call back in 15 minutes?  Of course, I tell him.   I resign myself to waiting, and nervously pick at trail mix.  Usually, exchanges with him send me to the bottle in the freezer for a quick nip.  Sunflower seeds seem a better option overall.

Finally, my phone rings, so I can stop munching and pacing.  It’s about Grandma.  My careful planning, all the months of painful discussions and sharp words – what is he going to tell me?  I’m ready to hear him say he’s had enough and has to send her back to me.  I can’t go back.  I went broke and nearly crazy trying to care for her before.  I have a tiny life now, bordered by student loan debt and rent.  I can’t take on another responsibility.  I can’t be with her all day and all night as her memories slip away and her body grows smaller.  I think of how tiny she was when I last saw her at my wedding….

It’s cliché to describe petite women as birdlike, but I can’t think of a better way to imagine her.  She is short, with a tiny frame, and delicate limbs.  The late-in-life pot belly she used to stuff into her girdles is gone.  Her flesh has receded, she feels like her bones are glass and air.  Her hair is still silvery even at 85, and her movements are modest but limber.  Her body gives no clue of the thief called dementia.

I still can’t believe that she is starting down that road. She’s always been dotty, always had trouble placing the right word, or getting a name off her tongue.  She’s always had a tendency to wander in her stories and make up silly songs to fill time.  She’s always had one foot in the past.  I thought this was just her – was I wrong all those years? Was I keeping her away from the help she needed, was I being cruel by insisting she continue to make some decisions for herself, or do some things on her own?

She said once he treats her like she’s old.  And she didn’t like that.  But what else could I do?  He had the space, the money.  He’s twice my age, established in life.  And he’s her son.  I sent her down there, packed her things, and hugged her.  I still wonder….

He sounds unusual to me: stressed, a bit sad, and uncertain.  He’s never sounded this vulnerable.  Gramma’s doing fine, but something has happened, and surely I’ve heard all about it.  A separation.  The image I had of his family dims.  They were perfect, they did “everything right”.  They established an American Dream while we struggled in the shadows, suspect in our penury. 

He’s living alone with Grandma, and he’s feeling the bind.  He can’t afford to quit his job to stay with her, but he can’t afford to leave her alone.  Home health aides cost more than he can manage, sending kids to college.  Day cares and services are out of his range as well.  He wants to know what I think about looking for homes for her.  He’s at his wit’s end.  He’s worried.

I feel no small amount of schadenfreude.  Welcome to being a woman, I think.  Welcome to the 47% I think.  His life has not been without struggle, surely, but he’s never had to have worked so hard for so little.  As far as I know he’s never had to keep working so hard to stay in one place, right above disaster, never mind moving forward.  He’s never had to make the tradeoffs I have.  Until now.

I offer the better half of mixed intentions, phrases and noises that altogether mean “Sorry about that, it’s tough”.  We agree that after Christmas, we’ll start looking for places.  I volunteer to spread the word around my in-laws and see what our state has to offer in elder care.  What places to look at, what questions to ask, what to avoid. Money is a concern for him, now, too.  But I have people who will help me crunch the numbers.  We make tentative plans for my husband and I to visit the now half-empty house.  I want to see how he’s living.  I want to see how she is.  She’s my priority, but I have some nosiness in me, after all.

As much empathy as I feel, I don’t feel a great deal of trust.  This is natural, given the gulf between us.  We’re still united by Grandma, though.  We share this woman’s love, and we both want what’s best for her.  We’re going to have to put some things aside, and face others.  We are both going to have to live with our ghosts for a while.    


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