Dictionary.com’s Word of the Day gave me pause this morning.
aegis \EE-jis\, noun:
1. Protection; support.
2. Sponsorship; patronage.
3. Guidance, direction, or control.
4. A shield or protective armor; — applied in mythology to the shield of Zeus.
It happens to be the name of the assisted care living facility that housed my grandmother for the last decade of her life. I started this entry right before she passed away, but its body sat blank with just the title “But where did the peanuts come from?” I told myself I didn’t want to post it on a Monday, because that would make my week depressing, but with the timing of aegis/Aegis coming up in my inbox, I feel I’m being told I can’t put it off any longer.
This is as much a story about being young and able to observe the life changes of those around you as it is about being old and fulfilling the conclusion of the Riddle of the Sphinx.
About a week before my grandmother finally passed, the signs were all there. She stopped taking food and drink, a natural indication that the rest of her body would be shutting down soon. My mom and I called on my grandmother’s physician to meet at the home, where we checked on all the “vital signs,” I guess.
When we arrived, my grandmother was sitting in her recliner which was pulled out into the common dining area. She had shrunken even more, and instead of her old usual greeting of an outstretched hand waiting for candy, she jut out her chin awkwardly like she was in constant swollen disagreement with the world.
After checking the condition of the mysterious bruise on my grandma’s knee, the doctor asked if we had noticed any signs of major discomfort. Was anything clearly different about Grandma? (Aside from what you’d expect from that point of denouement.) My mother and I were resigned to what was coming, nothing seemed out of the ordinary. I only brought up that my grandmother didn’t really pout that much before. It seemed like she was holding something back, physically.
The doctor gently tried to feed my grandmother pudding. Chocolate pudding. Weeks ago, this would make my grandmother’s eyes light up, for sure. On this day, she very awkwardly opened her mouth because of the spoon being prodded between her lips. It was a slim opening, just enough for her to skim one layer of pudding off the mound. We watched her throat. It didn’t seem like anything was being processed. The doctor pulled on the bottom jaw, and a murky pale brown solution of saliva and pudding dribbled down from my grandma’s chin.
It was disgusting and depressing. Disgusting because this food had been gathering and sitting in her mouth for over 24 hours. Depressing because this woman could not finish her food. Her body simply wasn’t going to have it.
For the next couple of hours my mother met in counsel with the doctor, the director of the home, and various nursing staff while I read at my grandmother’s side. Staff came by and tried to feed her more soft foods, but it was really to no avail. I think they did it more for the show of attention than for the benefit of my grandmother’s decaying system. It seemed like our first attempt at pudding that day had triggered uncontrollable dribble. I would read, look up at my grandma, wipe her mouth, let her steal the tissue and add it to her rumpled collection, and get back to reading. For a woman who used to walk into Macy’s knowing exactly which numbered shade of face powder she needed to replenish from the Clinique counter, this was a simple obvious point of no return.
One particular “Care Manager” was very attached to my grandmother. The night my grandmother passed, the care manager had gone to church praying for a peaceful passing. While I read on that afternoon, the care manager made up a smoothie and tried to feed it to my grandma. I tried to be assertive and tell her that straws were definitely out of the question, but I think she was in denial about the upcoming future of one of her future residents and tried, still, to coax and feed her.
Since this woman was so helpful and clearly cared, I asked if we could get a bib ready and maybe clear out the stuff that my grandmother was pocketing. The care manager thought this a good idea and came back with more tissues and a special napkin-bib that I’ve only seen in old people’s homes. We wiped and scooped thick liquid out of my grandmother’s toothless mouth, and I thought we were nearly done when I took a final swipe and came up with a really random peanut.
My grandmother had stopped taking food the day before the afternoon of the doctor’s visit, and it’s not she was up and walking around by herself, so as far as where this solid little nut came from, no one had a clue.
We scooped up more peanuts, and by the time my mother and the doctor had come back, we had a small collection of mystery peanuts that must have been sitting in murky saliva-slime for at least a day. It was actually a lighthearted moment, finding those kernels of solid food. “But where did the peanuts come from?” The care manager and I repeated laughing. It was dark humor that something so normal be found in the body of someone who was clearly on her way out.
The doctor was saying her good-byes and giving us things to look for in the next couple of days. For sure we shouldn’t attempt to feed her any more solid foods, if any at all. One last time, I said, “Yeah, it’s just a mystery where those peanuts came from!”
From the corner of the dining room, the most ornery resident in all of the dementia wing yelled out “I don’t know about that! I don’t have anything to do with that. I don’t know where it came from.”
A former police officer, this resident used to call my grandmother “The Terror of Fremont” and liked to respond to whatever random questions fell within her range of hearing. Earlier she was yelling at the resident across from her for stealing her napkin, telling her she was going to take her to jail. She was notorious for screaming “Rape! Rape!” every night when the care managers gave her a shower.
“All right, Gladys,” the care manager said.
Sigh. The sad funniness hit again.
When I finally left that day, I waved good-bye to my grandmother from the doorway across the room. Gladys saw me, looked really perplexed, and apprehensively waved back. Meanwhile, my grandmother registered nothing. It was hilarious in its own quiet way.
We still don’t know where the peanuts came from.