By Christy Sasser
Asheville, North Carolina
The trip from Atlanta to the nursing home in Chatom, Alabama, takes five hours. One bright summer day in June, my boyfriend Mark drove my black, two-door Honda Accord while I told him stories about Granny, the woman he was about to meet. Two years had passed since I’d seen her, and I felt relief as the miles passed, glad to be getting closer. The doctors had diagnosed Granny with dementia many years earlier, and I had lost track of it — and time — over the years, until our last few phone conversations. There were many long minutes of silence on her end, and I had to say her name several times to get a response.
Living in San Francisco, I only came home once a year, at Christmas. My family had scattered across many states, and I found it hard to get to Chatom. I had recently moved to Atlanta, begun dating Mark soon after, and lived with him a few months later. The relationship had progressed quickly, and I was OK with that.
Moving to Atlanta had been my escape plan — running away from my most recent break-up. I met Mark on a blind date, and we talked for four hours over glasses of wine. He was a good listener and had a comforting presence that soothed the ache in my chest.
Mark would now meet the most significant person in my life. Granny had been the only constant, the only one always there. When my mother got sick the first few weeks after I was born, Granny took care of me. After my parents divorced when I was four years old, she and Papa would often make a 30-minute drive to get my sister and me for the weekend. Granny was the one who told me it wasn’t my fault when I asked her what I had done to make Daddy leave.
During my childhood summers, we spent six weeks with Granny in Atmore, Alabama, the only time I ever felt relaxed. With my mother and stepdad on our family farm, my sister, Emily, and I always worked, even on weekends — shoveling cow manure, raking pine straw, picking up pine cones from the surrounding pasture. We tackled the indoor chores after that — cleaning bathrooms, mopping, vacuuming, dusting. It never seemed to end. Granny taught us how to relax — to paint, sew clothes for our Barbie dolls, and enjoy old Barbara Stanwyck movies.
I loved watching Granny go through the mail, especially when she reviewed the telephone bill. She examined every number on the list, and when she didn’t recognize one, she called the phone company demanding an adjustment. Once, Granny called one of the unidentified numbers, grilling the person on the other end about how this number ended up on her phone bill. Granny’s determination not to be taken made me feel protected and safe.
She took another stand. When my sister got pregnant at 20, unmarried and abandoned by the father, Granny, wife of a Southern Baptist pastor, held her close and told her, “No one better gossip or say anything bad about my granddaughter or they’ll answer to me.”
Granny’s infectious laugh and ability to connect with anyone made her beloved where she lived. Even my friends called her Granny, and she would tell us stories for hours, giggling like a teenager, affectionately calling me “Girl.”
When I graduated high school and couldn’t take the trapped feeling of home anymore, she and Papa let me move into their guest room. Even as an adult, I would sit on her lap and lay my head on her shoulder. She would sing her favorite song, "You Are My Sunshine," her voice still as soothing as it was during my childhood.
The disease had a slow progression. Granny lived on her own until she moved in with her daughter, then into an assisted living home, and finally into a nursing home.
She would tell me stories of the people in these places, some that made me laugh, some that scared me. Once, she became convinced that people were stealing from her. Even though I knew the disease probably caused her paranoia, I felt angry and wanted to believe her. At least then I wouldn’t have to think about the nervousness in my stomach. Or, that Granny was changing.
She would urge me to visit her, explaining that a nurse could set up a cot for me in her room. Why didn't I just spend the night? Instead, I told her I would call again soon. Those calls always ended the same: I love you.
Riding with Mark along Interstate 65, I imagined what she might look like now. I pictured her older and frailer. The last time I had seen Granny, she hadn’t been able to feed herself. Her hand didn’t move the way she wanted, and I had to help her. She wouldn’t look me in the eye as I brought the spoon to her mouth and she quickly pushed her food away. The silence hung heavy between us, and I wanted to say something, to not dismiss this as nothing. But I couldn’t.
At least she would meet Mark. It would make her happy to meet a man in my life. She was always telling me I needed to get married, encouraging me to settle down. Despite growing up in a small southern town, I hadn’t followed the traditional path of many girls my age. Most, including Granny and my mother, had gotten married early, had children, and stayed close to the area. I also didn’t have many of the interests that Granny and other Southern women seemed at ease doing – cooking, hosting gatherings, and participating in organized religion. I was a Southern girl, but different.
But Granny never pressured me to do anything, except find a man. I thought introducing her to Mark would be good. It would be relevant if our relationship became more serious. He needed to know her.
We arrived at the nursing home mid-afternoon.
“I want to go in alone first,” I told Mark and asked him to wait in the car. A one-story building stretched wide in front of me. I opened the glass door in the front entryway. To the left sat a group of residents in wheelchairs, arranged in a circle. A young woman with light brown hair pulled back in ponytail led the group in exercises.
“Lift your arms in the air,” she yelled, her face animated.
I spotted Granny instantly. She had her back to me, but I could see the profile of her face. Her hair was so white and sparse I could see her entire scalp. She had a blue blanket pulled up to her neck and around her body. She did not move.
I walked to the wheelchair and stood looking down at her. Her face seemed much thinner, her translucent skin still beautiful, but pulled tight. She looked small; her tiny frame slightly bent to the side.
"Granny!" I said with excitement. Her head turned slowly towards me, and she looked up. Our eyes met.
Instantly, I saw there was no recognition.
"Hey Granny, it's me, Christy. I came to see you.” I raised my voice. She would recognize my voice. I just needed for her to hear me.
"It's me, Granny, Christy. Your Christy."
I smiled at her, and she looked away, turning her head back toward the group.
Panic crept into my chest. I knelt down beside her and put my hand on her arm. The blanket fell away, exposing her pale skin. Dark purple marks that looked like bruises covered her arm. I touched her skin lightly with my fingers, afraid I might hurt her if I rubbed.
"Granny,” I whispered. She looked at me again, and this time I saw confusion. Was there fear, too? Was I scaring her?
Oh, my God. I started to cry, swallowing the sounds that kept rising to my throat. This, I thought, was not happening. Granny would always know me. I was her Christy. Her girl.
It's strange what happens to the mind when it can't handle a present moment. I felt like a little girl again, when I used to cling to Granny’s waist, begging her not to go. This time, I knelt, shaking as I held the side of her wheelchair.
A small voice told me to stop crying, reminded me people were watching. I wanted to run, to forget this moment. I’m so sorry, Granny. The words echoed in my head, reverberated through my body. They wouldn’t mean anything to her now.
I forced myself to look at her face again. Her head had turned away from me, but I could see her eyes, vacant.
Desperate, I began to sing, softly.
“You are my sunshine, my only sunshine, you make me happy when skies are gray…”
I sang with desperation, hoping something in her face would change. She did not look at me. I finished and waited, feeling lost and invisible. I stood up and leaned near her face. “I love you, Granny.”
I turned and walked towards the door, unable to look back.
Outside, the sun gleamed off the pavement. My legs felt heavy as logs, and it took all my will to move them forward. I wanted to fall and let the hot cement burn my skin. Going back to the car felt like a betrayal. How could I leave? And who was Mark, anyway? I had known him less than six months.
I felt exhausted, as if I hadn’t slept in days. And then I felt it once again — the urge to run. To leap into the future, where things might be more manageable, where I imagined something different than this moment. Running — it had been my way for as long as I could remember, my survival plan. A new man. A new job. A new place. Already Mark was starting to fade, seeming more like memory than mate.
But running was how I had missed life. I was always running so far into the future, trying to escape anything painful to know, painful to feel.
Now, it had caught up with me. I had nowhere to run. Granny was gone, and I could not stand with her and just be there.
I saw myself as clearly as I had ever seen anything, but still, I walked on to the car, unable to be still.
Nine months later, I broke up with Mark and packed up my Honda Accord for San Francisco. I had no job, no place to live, but the urge to run was too strong.
Those next two years were more of the same. I couldn’t slow down. It was as if I was trying to outrun something while desperately seeking something at the same time, and I didn’t know what it was.
A year after the breakup with Mark, I was engaged to David, a man I had been friends with for more than a decade. He had moved to Alaska for a life of adventure, a vision that sounded wonderful to me. In June of 2011, two months after I moved to Fairbanks, I realized I didn’t know David as well as I thought, and I was back in my Honda, driving the Alaska Highway across Canada and back to San Francisco.
A few months later, in early August, my cell phone rang. Emily was calling to tell me she had seen a message on Facebook that Granny wasn’t doing well. I called my uncle, who said Granny was in the late stages of dementia and declining. She wasn’t talking or showing recognition, though she would appear more alert when someone played "You Are My Sunshine."
I asked the hard question, “Do I need to come, Uncle Abe?” He said he didn’t know, that it was hard to tell about these things.
I hung up the phone, a nervous feeling creeping into my stomach, the weight of the conversation heavy on my chest. Would going now be too soon? I had a full-time job and lived across the country. I couldn’t make two trips within a short amount of time. But, what if this was it? No one in our family had contacted my sister and me about it. It had been like this our whole lives.
Granny was the one who held on to us.
If I didn’t go now, would I regret it? I felt an ache so deep my bones hurt. I remembered being on my knees, beside her wheelchair, pleading with her to know me. I had left her that day, unable to stay with her, to deal with what was happening to her. I would not leave her alone again. I had to be there. The idea of seeing her terrified me. Could I handle this? But the bigger, louder voice, the one that called from inside my chest, was deafening. Go. Go now.
Later that day, I was on a plane to Dothan, Alabama, where Emily lives, four hours from Granny. We drove to the nursing home the next morning, arriving early afternoon, unsure of what was to come. The sun was high in the sky, the air hot and humid.
We walked into Granny’s room, and there she was, her eyes closed, lying motionless on a hospital bed, her chest rising and falling slowly.
She hadn’t changed dramatically since the last time I’d seen her. Her face was more drawn now. She was so still. I’m sorry, Granny. The words in my head repeated over and over. I had left her alone, my Granny. But not now. I was here. My hands shook as I grabbed her fingers, lightly squeezing them.
“Granny, it’s me. Christy.” I leaned in close to her face. “I’m here, Granny. Christy. Your Christy. I’m with you.”
There was no response from her, and I could feel it passing over me, the helplessness, the fear. But this time, I did not run. I was not going to leave her again.
A nurse came in and said she was with the hospice program. My heart lurched. I knew what that meant. She told me Granny had been like this for a while, mostly unconscious.
My aunt and uncle lived in Chatom, and they were telling the family Granny was not doing well. A few family members came by that evening to see her and congregated in one of the nursing home's family rooms to visit.
Later, I was alone with Granny, the room quiet. I stood beside her bed and rubbed her arm, smoothing her hair back with my other hand.
“I’m sorry, Granny. I just couldn’t do it. I couldn’t deal with you not knowing me. I’m sorry for being so selfish. I’m sorry for not coming to stay with you more.” I could not stop crying. It was like my heart had broken open, and everything I had ever felt was pouring out. “But I’m here now. If you can hear me, I’ve got you. Papa’s here, too. I can feel him. We’ve all got you.”
Night came, and Emily and I decided to stay at the nursing home, sleeping on and off in the chairs in Granny’s room. Our aunt stayed with us, and the three of us kept watch, jumping at any sign of irregular breathing. During the early hours of the morning, Emily and I sang "You Are My Sunshine" to her, and her eyes would blink faster, making us think she could hear.
Later that morning, around 9 a.m., a nurse came in to change Granny’s nightgown, and we all left the room. A few minutes later, I walked in to get my purse, and I stopped, horrified.
Granny lay on the bed, the sheets pulled back, and was barely dressed. Her body looked so deteriorated. The nurse was trying to turn her, pulling on Granny too hard, too forcefully. I felt rage, wanting to scream at this woman. But I forced myself to stay calm.
“Would you like some help?” I asked. Surprisingly, she said yes, and I helped her put a clean nightgown on Granny.
As the nurse pulled the blankets up around Granny, close to her neck, she nodded to Granny’s hands.
“See how her fingers are turning blue? That’s a first sign,” she said.
It took a few seconds for me to comprehend what she meant.
“Are there other signs?” I asked, trying to keep my voice steady. I had never seen someone die, and the idea of watching Granny pass away terrified me more than anything ever had.
“Yes, her other fingers will start to turn blue. And her breathing will become more shallow. You’ll hear a rattle,” she said. Oh, my God, this was real. “You should get your family. I’d say an hour or so.”
What? This was happening now. No one else knew, and the urgency of the moment swelled up before me. I ran out of the room and down the hallway, calling for Emily. She was standing in the waiting area with my aunt and uncle. “The nurse said we need to come now,” I said, desperate to get back.
The four of us stood around Granny’s bed, Emily and I on one side, my aunt and uncle on the other. Her breathing slowed, and I could hear a slight rattle. There was a lengthening pause between her breaths. All of her fingers were light blue now.
Emily stood close to me, our bodies leaning into each other. She held Granny’s hand, and I felt my sister shaking against me, crying. I put my arm around her and placed my hand on Granny’s leg. Her breathing grew more shallow; the in and out of her breath slowed down.
I watched Granny’s face, feeling so much love and so much pain. I pressed my hand gently into her leg, hoping she would feel me with her. Go, Granny, I thought. You can go. I love you.
My eyes watered, and I felt her leaving. I also felt her coming. A sunshine ... a warmth covering me like a blanket. It was her. She was here, inside of me. Her laughter, her light, her courage.
I felt her presence in a way I hadn’t in years. I believe, somewhere, somehow, she felt mine, too. The way she hadn’t in years.
Granny breathed in one last time, and that was it. I did not move. My aunt and uncle grabbed our hands and started praying.
I could not hear the prayer, only my thoughts. She is gone. And she is here. I could feel all of it — the love and the pain. The sunshine.
I was finally still.