Advice for Granddaughters
I would advise you to get a dog or a cat if you don’t already have one. Anything that makes you smile just by looking at them—in my experience, pets never fail. You will be looking for a reason to smile anywhere you can find it, so it helps if that reason follows you around the house. Ideally you have said pet in place before your grandmother’s first fall.
When you help your parents move your grandmother into their spare bedroom, you’ll only need to pack her nightgown, housecoat, and socks. You probably won’t realize it at the time, but there is a high probability she will never leave your parents’ house. She will never wear pants again. She will never wear normal underwear again.
It is perfectly acceptable to buy the off-brand Depends from Walmart. There are no internet mommies shaming you for not buying organic, gluten-free products. Those moms want the very best products for their children so they can grow up strong and successful. You, on the other hand, are just holding out until the end. You will stand embarrassed in the checkout aisle with a jumbo pack of off-brand Depends and hope that everyone around you understands they’re not for you.
You can help your parents by researching hospice agencies so that an aide can already be there when your grandmother arrives. Your parents may be the stubborn type who will try to maintain any sense of normalcy and routine, including going to work and bike riding on weekends. Forgive them. That’s where the aide comes in.
If your control-freak sister comes over to help and starts compulsively cleaning your parents’ house, let her. Yes, washing the windows and mowing the lawn have nothing to do with caring for your grandmother. But it's her love language, and her attempt to do anything remotely helpful in the face of the one situation she can’t control.
You will realize that the way you now talk to your grandmother is the same way you talk to your two-year-old nephew: loud, slow, and artificially cheerful. You’ll say things like “There, isn’t that pillow nice and soft?” and “How about another bite of yogurt!” You will push away memories of when she used to have full conversations with you on topics like music theory, your family history, and the plot of the last book she read.
Don’t feel bad if you find your usually stoic dad sobbing in the other room. Also don’t feel bad if your hand on his shoulder and muddled words of comfort feel insufficient. Remember that your presence is enough. But you should offer to take watch for a few hours so he can get some fresh air.
The first time your grandmother hallucinates about hearing piano chords, don’t be upset. While it may seem strange to you, rest assured it is comforting to her. Resist the urge to tell her she’s wrong; just go with it. But know that hallucinations are a sign of the end.
It would be better for all involved if the end came swiftly rather than slowly. It would be smart if you didn't wait until this point to say your parting words. The better time to tell her how much she meant to you was three years ago, when her mind was much sharper. That way when you get to this point, you won't feel like you're too late.
On her last day, you’ll feel woefully inadequate because no amount of pillow fluffing or piano playing can comfort her quite like morphine can. Before you administer the first dose under her tongue, I recommend that you take a pause. This will be the last time she will seem even remotely like herself. After that, the morphine will take away everything, her suffering and her old self. She might stare out the window, or at nothing at all, but I assure you she’s in no pain. You will hold her hand and hope that she can still feel you there.
And on the day that you are no longer a granddaughter, you will wonder if there was more you could have done. Would she have wanted to see the ocean one last time? Or danced to her favorite song? Or felt rain on her face? You will wonder if your grandmother ever imagined how she would like to go, and if what you did was enough.
After she is taken away and you load your car with the unopened packs of Depends, Chux Pads, and Ensures to return to the store, you’ll feel a tiny disappointment that they were never used. You’ll think to yourself what a responsible granddaughter you were, buying all of these supplies and preparing for months of this. And you’ll feel cheated when she goes faster than any of you thought.
Don’t be alarmed when, in the coming days, the smallest things make you weep. Like the little cups of coffee ice cream still in the freezer that she said she’d like but never had the appetite for. Or the last book you read to her that sits unfinished on the piano bench. Or when you’re driving on the freeway and pass the exit to her house, and you realize you no longer have a reason to ever take that exit again.
You aren’t useless if you have no idea what to do with her glasses or wallet now. You aren’t crazy if sometimes you look up at the sky and talk to her. You aren’t heartless if eventually you manage to go back to your daily life like nothing has happened.
In the end, even if she lived to be 96 years old, you will always feel like it was never enough time. You will wish you had visited more, called more. But I urge you to remind yourself, you were there at the end when you were needed most. And you’ll realize that the person who needed you wasn’t your grandmother at all, but your dad, who just lost his last parent. You’ll hug him and your mom tighter than you ever have (and not that half-hug you’ve been perfecting since your teenage years), and you’ll vow that every time you come up on their exit, you’ll take it.