When I was a teenager the only thing I was good at was helping my Grandmother come back home.
"You're grandmother's gone walking again!" my mom shouted from outside of my bedroom door.
That announcement was always my bat signal — it meant that it was time for me to jump into action and try to convince my grandmother to quit her walk and go back to her home.
I immediately hid the JC Penny magazine that I was pursuing (translated: looking at the pictures of older women in bras) under my pillow and sprung off the floor. I opened my door and met my mom's gaze.
"I wish you wouldn't close your door all of the time," she said.
"What is the point of a door if we don't use them?" I asked.
This was our usual banter we had about my constant need for privacy. I don't think she actually had a problem with me shutting myself in my bedroom because she knew that as a moody 13-year old boy I needed a daily dose of isolation to feed my soul. Her outward resistance to me being a hermit was merely for public consumption and to fulfill the requirement of what she thought a good mom would say about the whole situation. We both had an unspoken truce about what the consequences would be if I didn't have my quiet time to listen to The Police, write some lame poetry and take in a couple catalogs that featured numerous models sporting the seasons latest fashion in brasseries.
The bedroom that I occupied as a teenager was the womb where I developed jokes or comedy routines that I would use the next day at school. I would pace around my bed working on the timing of and cadence of my various bits that were usually just jokes I had stolen from Robin Williams that I bent to fit the needs of my peer group. My bedroom served many roles in my life. It was my center of creativity, my chapel, my brothel, and the place where I first began to feel the initial bangs of depression that I refused to ever give a name to for 25-years. My bedroom was my bunker that I hid in whenever I became overwhelmed with all of the complexities of life — which ended up being most of the time. It was where I went when I didn't understand what the world wanted from me.
My mom knew that my bedroom was my cocoon and when I had the door closed she knew that it was probably for a good reason — besides I'm told there was a certain rancid odor that emitted from there that could render a perfectly healthy adult incontinent. My mom only demanded that I come out of my bedroom for a few reasons:
3) She found my D riddled report card that I had balled up in the trash.
5) My grandmother had slipped past her in-home nurse and gone on a walk again.
"You need to help bring your grandmother back home," my mom said.
"Let's go," I said trying to close the door behind me.
"Put on some pants first."
I looked down and saw that I was still in my glorious tidy whiteys. I always took advantage of my bedrooms "pants optional" dress code.
"How long has she been gone?" I asked.
"Only about ten minutes, but nobody is G-D sure which way she went!" she yelled impatiently. My mom used the initials G and D as a way to fake blaspheme without actually having to actually do it.
After I slid into some of my patented tan corduroys I got into my mom's 1980's Mecury Sedan to begin our search for my elderly grandmother, Isabelle. Isabelle was my Dad's mom who had for years been slowly descending down the heartbreaking escalator of dementia. Eventually it had gotten so bad that it caused her to have to move into a house across the street from us where she had live in nurse to help her out.
I was fortunate to get to know my grandmother for a few years before her mental capacities began to fail her. We could not be more different from each other but we had a strange connection that had formed between us. Isabelle was a tough frontier woman who had grown up on a real old time western ranch. In her prime she was a formidable woman who had the ability to render people into ash with a single gaze. Before her downfall she had always reminded me of a female version of a Clint Eastwood gunslinger character. Isabelle was born with an allergy to nonsense and suffered no fools — which made our close relationship all the more mysterious. I was The King Of Fools and never shyed away from acting like that in front of her. My grandmother would often respond to my behavior with loving quips like "John, you are a special sort of idiot, aren't you?"
I believe that our odd kinship was formed because I was able to make her laugh. I think that this was a feat that no person on Earth, aside from my grandfather, (whom I never met) had ever been able to accomplish. Isabelle would tell me tales of what it was like to experience the unforgiving winters of Wyoming while ranching as a little girl, and I in turn, would share with her my Jimmy Carter impersonation. My grandmother and I would sit in her parked car and suckle down Jolly Rancher's while we traded her stories for my jokes.
The revelation that she was suffering from dementia came to me suddenly, but for my parents it had been a slow boil. There were probably a hundred clues that I missed (aka: willfully ignored) that her mind was fading away — but I had never allowed myself to pick up on them. It wasn't until I was in eighth grade when my grandmother had gotten into a major car accident that I was forced to come to grips with what was going on. Isabelle had gotten into her long forbidden car and driven outside of town looking for her long abandoned childhood ranch. She had been going about 30 MPH on the interstate and was plowed into by a semi truck. It was a wreck that sent her to the ICU and allowed her mind to accelerate it's full system failure.
Once she got out of the hospital it was clear that Isabelle could never live alone again. That was when it was decided that she would move in across the street from us with a live in nurse. This fact alone is cause enough to probably have allowed my mom to enter straight into heaven upon her death almost five years ago. Isabelle and my mom had the typical mother-in-law and daughter-in-law relationship. My mother feared no person on the planet — with one exception: Isabelle. Here were two fire-tested women who had more standoffs than The Duke Boys and the local authorities of Hazard County with my poor dad caught in between these two titans. When my grandmother was rendered mentally incapacitated it was my mom who came up with the idea that Isabelle should move in across the street where we could all keep an eye on her.
Post-accident Isabelle was far more combative than her pre-accident version. This was mostly because she was confused about what was going on — but I'm convinced that there was still enough processing power in her to know how to get under my mom's skin. We would have her over for dinner a couple times of week and my grandmother would spend most of the time just letting my mom have it.
"This place is a messy disgrace," Isabelle would declare about the state of my mom's housekeeping — which was impeccable. Our house was always museum clean; a fact that my mom always prided herself in.. Any suggestion of it being otherwise would obviously cause my mom's blood to boil in her veins.
"I'll try to clean it later," my mom would say while most certainly uttering several hundred G & D's in her head.
Isabelle would go after everybody with a barb or two — except for me. Even through all of her haze and cognitive scar tissue there still remained a connection between us. I was dubbed by my mom as "The Isabelle Translator" and it was always up to me to be the one to tell her that it was time for dinner or time to start get ready to go back to her home across the street. She would listen to me when she wouldn't for anybody else.
My grandmother lived across from our house for years and my mom selflessly helped care for her without ever allowing us to see her complain about it. I have no doubt that she would vent to my dad behind their closed doors — but it was never a moment that I was forced to witness. The amount of money and emotional cost that my parents paid to help care for my grandmother without bitching about any of it remains one of the greatest lessons they had ever taught me.
As time went on Isabelle got more and more confused and unstable. She would wake up in the night and believe that she had been kidnapped by the nurses who were living with her. I could hear her screaming from across the street while her caregivers would try and calm her down. At least once a month she would find a way to sneak out of her house and go on a walk. The nurse would come running frantically over to our front door and explain that "she had just stepped into the bathroom for a second and when she came out Isabelle was gone!"
Driving around our neighborhood looking for my grandmother was not an uncommon practice for my mother and I. Eventually we found her shuffling in her nightgown down an alleyway. My mom knew that it would be pointless to try and talk to Isabelle herself. That's what I was for. I was the "Isabelle Translator" after all — it was my only real functional purpose in our family.
"Tell her that she needs to get in the car and come back home," my mom said. "It's almost getting dark."
"And make sure she puts on this GD coat!" my mom commanded as she handed me Isabelle's coat that she had kept in her car for moments exactly like this. It was October and in Wyoming that meant that as soon as the sun went down it would go from 50 degrees to Hoth in a matter of moments.
I got out of the car and jogged up to my grandmother. Her bare arms were beet red and her hands were shivering. Isabelle's wrinkled face was bewildered and had tears steaming down it. She looked exhausted — and it looked like she would collapse on the hard concrete at any moment.
"Grandmother," I said while wrapping the coat around her shoulders. "Come on, it's time to go home."
"That's not my home!" she barked. "Those people are trying to kill me and steal all of my things!
"No they aren't. They are trying to help you."
"Bullshit. I think they are poisoning me so that they can bury me in the grave they have dug for me in the backyard," she said with her eyes still blankly looking forward. I had no response for this. What could I possibly say to an accusation like that? I thought about arguing with her but I knew that she wouldn't believe me.
"Where are we walking to?" I asked her.
"The ranch. I can't wait for you to see it," she said.
"Me either," I replied. "Maybe we should go there tomorrow when it wasn't so cold out. Besides I think it would be better to see it during the day time."
"No! We are going now! Now quit your bullshit and let's get moving!"
Usually I would have already been able to have convinced Isabelle to turn back around, but there was obviously something more going on with her on that particular day. She had already dropped two "bullshits" on me in a matter of seconds. I looked back at my mom who was a trolling us a half block behind in the car. I flashed her a look that indicated that I was perhaps in over my head.
She unrolled her window and shouted "Tell her that we need to get her home right now! She is going to break a stupid hip!"
I knew that I needed to get her to agree to get in the car herself. The alternative would be us trying to physically move her into the car without her consent and that would be a nightmare and probably end up with my mom and I being arrested for abducting a senior citizen.
It was then that my grandmother grabbed my hand. Her fingers were so damned cold. Her knuckles were already turning a shade of blue. She stopped walking and began to sob.
"I just want to go to my ranch. I just want to go to my ranch. I just want to go to my ranch." she repeated through her crying jags. Her voice sounded like a child. It instantly unnerved me.
"I know," I said.
"It's all gone, isn't it? My ranch is gone? she asked me. This was the first time that she had looked at me since I had joined her on the walk. I remember how flush her face was with mucus and tears.
"Yes," I replied. I immediately wondered if I should have lied and told her that her childhood ranch was still up and running. I worried that perhaps my honesty would send her further down the rabbit hole.
It didn't. Instead, Isabelle just squeezed my hand uncomfortably tighter.
"I wish you could have seen it. It was where I became who I am. It was were I was safe. I could be anything I wanted to there." she said in a brief moment of absolute clarity.
Isabelle had just described my exact relationship with my own bedroom.
"I wish I could have seen it too." I answered honestly.
“Everything back then was ahead of me. Now...everything is behind me,” Isabelle said — her freezing hand clutching mine even harder now. I didn’t say anything in reply. There was nothing I could say.
"Well, if it's gone let's not go there. It would be a waste of time," she said. Her drying eyes gave me a once over and then she asked "Where in the hell is your coat?"
"I left it at home," I said.
"Aren't you a special sort of idiot?" She asked rhetorically.
"That I am," I said — not being able to help smiling at the revelation that underneath all of her suffering and mental torment that the same old Isabelle remained.
"Where shall we walk to?" I asked her.
"How about we walk until somebody gives a damn?" my grandmother suggested.
Perfect answer — I didn't know what it meant — but it sounded so G D cool. We walked hand in hand for a couple more blocks with my mom tailing us like the worst undercover cop ever. I told Isabelle jokes. She told me about random memories of her childhood. Under the fading fall Wyoming sun we had our last real conversation before her mind finally fully took her away from me.
These day whenever I take my evening walk I always think about what she said.
"Walk until somebody gives a damn."
I still don't know what it means, but that shouldn't be a surprise to anybody. I am a special kind of idiot after all.
There's more where that came from!