Twenty years ago my grandmother moved into a nursing home. She had made the decision to leave her home several years earlier and then, when the time came, she went.
I wish I had known then to ask what I now think are the most profound questions: What defines “the time”? And how do you know when it has arrived?
We all marveled in later years at Maw-Maw’s strength of character, bravery, and the selfless quality of her decision. Momma made countless trips to Tipton, Indiana to help Maw-Maw rid herself of all her belonging, saving only a few sentimental items and a handful of necessities. I knew at the time that Momma thought it was a difficult process, but I didn’t pay much heed to Momma’s woes – I just thought she didn’t like the work.
I heard bits and pieces of sorrow throughout the process, like the day Maw-Maw burned a box of love letters from her husband, but for the most part, it was simply an experience packed into a few months of hard work and tedious detail. Very little was ever said about emotional turmoil. Maw-Maw was brave, and Momma was grateful; that’s all I knew.
I had no responsibilities for Maw-Maw, so I was completely free to make random visits to the nursing home beating sweets and hugs and cheerful stories. I thought she was happy. I thought she was simply doing what old people were supposed to do. Maw-Maw always lit up when I walked into the room. And she always laughed at my antics and stories. Everything was fine as far as I was concerned, and Maw-Maw never gave me any reason to think otherwise.
Maw-Maw lived in the nursing home for less than one year. They told us that was normal because old people often decline rapidly after such a move. She just kind of slowed down, then went into the hospital and then she died. Though I was saddened by the hole left in my heart with her departure, I was accepting of her death because it all seemed perfectly natural.
But now I have a thousand questions. Now that I am the responsible one, I admire Maw-Maw’s far-sighted planning as an unspeakable gift. I wonder how she did it, and more importantly, how did she know when to do it? Now that I am responsible for Momma’s life and decisions that will affect her happiness, I overwhelmed and angered by the multitude of decisions we have in this modern age. All I know is that 1) Momma does NOT want to go into a nursing home; and 2) she has declined to a point where I am no longer able to provide the kind of care she needs.
We have to make a change.
Keeping Momma at home will result in not meeting her needs; yet taking her to a nursing home will deny her wish; it will betray her trust in us. Can we keep her home a little longer? What signs will make me sure? I want Momma to say that it’s time. I want Daddy to give me a sign. If only Maw-Maw could tell me how she knew the time had come for her to go; and what conditions define “the time”.