Two years after my husband Greg and I were married, word came from his Aunt and Uncle in Florida that there was a problem with his grandmother. In one of those awful flukes, Kodak, the company she had worked for all her life, had made an error in her pension. They had been underpaying her for years. This might seem like good news but now that she’d be getting more money, she was no longer eligible to receive the aid that kept her in the private nursing home in Florida she had lived in since a stroke nearly ten years before had left her paralyzed on her right side, unable to walk, speak, wash or dress herself. She would be moved to a state-run facility. No one in the family wanted this to happen but there seemed to be no other choice. She couldn’t stay where she was until a bed in a New York nursing home was available. So Greg and I, having no idea what were getting ourselves into, decided to take care of her at our house in the interim.
My mom’s a geriatric nurse and she generously agreed to fly down, pick up Grandma from the nursing home and accompany her back to New York. They arrived and the first order of business after a long weary day of travel was to get Grandma washed and changed and into bed. About 20% of people who have strokes, suffer from a loss of emotional control. They don’t just get happy, they get delirious. They don’t get sad, they sob inconsolably. They don’t get annoyed, they get furious. I didn’t know it yet but Grandma was one of that 20%. My mom and I took Grandma into her new room and as soon as she saw the washcloth Grandma lost it. My mother, who is arguably the most patient person in the world, gently and methodically showed me how to wash, change, and move Grandma. Grandma yelled. Then she screamed. Then she grabbed the washcloth from my mother and
threw it into the corner. Next she did her best to land a few punches.
Frustrated and Afraid
I was terrified. In the morning I would have to do this myself. When we walked out of the room Greg said to me, “I’m glad she CAN’T talk” I looked at him quizzically. He explained, “I know she was using words that would make a sailor blush.”
The next morning I gathered basin and towel, washcloth and soap and headed into her room with my knees knocking. “Good morning Grandma” I said in my softest sweetest voice. She opened her eyes and smiled. I waited for the screaming to start, it didn’t. I started to wash and change her and struggled to do everything just the way mom had showed me the night before. I couldn’t do it. I didn’t know how to turn her without hurting her and was so afraid and frustrated I started to cry, “I’m sorry Grandma, I don’t know how…” I told her. She looked at my tears and patted my arm, she consoled me with her voice, and even without words, she let me know it was okay – we would get through together.
A lot of people talk about suffering as a test. It’s impossible for me to recall Grandma’s twisted body and out of control emotions and think that God had visited this suffering on her to test her or us or anyone. I do believe though, that when we are able to remain open to God in difficult times, that God can make good come even from suffering.
Expect the Unexpected
I learned the lessons of a lifetime in the few months that she lived with us. I learned a lot about what my values really are and how much stronger I am than I’d thought. I learned that even those who appear to need the most sometimes have the most to give. And I learned that God’s grace arrives in unexpected ways. Almost three months after she’d come to live with us, we had a day filled with good news. The day we found out there was a bed available in the nursing home near Greg’s parents, we also found out we were pregnant.
While it was a relief not to have the responsibility of her care, in the end it was hard to let Grandma go. We had all been changed by the experience. As Grandma started her “new life” and as we awaited one, all three of us had become more patient, more generous more prepared for the changes that lay ahead and more open to God’s grace.