Dispatches from Dixie

It’s kind of amazing how quickly two days can go by even when you don’t feel like you’re doing much. It’s equally amazing how tired you can get just sitting with someone, if that someone has dementia. Mimi is … well, my aunt calls her “confused” and I guess that’s as accurate a term as any. If she weren’t my grandmother, and if her current state weren’t such a marked difference from the way she ought to be, it would be kind of fascinating to watch how her brain is trying to work. Being with her is a little like being with Mrs. Dalloway, only Mimi’s stream of consciousness doesn’t tie together too well. She talks almost nonstop, but often it’s difficult to tell if she’s talking TO anyone, or just, you know … talking. She makes valiant attempts to maintain conversational niceties, telling you about her day or how she spent the evening or a story she got reminded of. The problem is, she doesn’t really remember about her day, and she thinks she spent the night in jail on false charges, and she can’t remember the names of anyone in her story. Yesterday she told us she’d been trapped in prison all night long and couldn’t find her witnesses to prove she wasn’t supposed to be there, so she called Aubie (my aunt’s dog, whom Mimi loves and who isn’t allowed in the home) and tied a message to him and told him to go find my aunt and get her out of there. Which … how fucking depressing is THAT? Aubie figures regularly in her stories; the other day she reached over to my dad and patted him on his hand, calling him her “sweet Aubie-poo Robinson Timothy.” She does that a lot, gets started on the wrong track and then kind of tries to veer back around to the right one.

She still has some of her sass and sense of humor. My aunt always used to say that living with Mimi was kind of like living with Lucille Ball, and she wasn’t the only one to make the comparison. If there’s one element that’s a constant on my dad’s side of the family, I guess it’s laughter – we all like to crack jokes and laugh at ourselves and each other. And as much as Mimi could drive you nuts sometimes, she was often the catalyst for the biggest laughs. We still see occasional glimmers of that: she was telling us about how her back doesn’t work anymore, and when she tries to sit up to get out of bed, nothing happens. “I just can’t understand it. I tell that back, ‘Get up!’ and it just will not move. I said to it, ‘What’d I ever do to you? Haven’t I always treated you right?’ Shoot. I’m gonna get up and pop it one of these days.” She was talking about how she’d always tried to be a truthful, good person, and my Dad said “Yeah, and look where THAT got you,” and she came right back with “Ain’t it a crying shame? Next time around I’m gonna be mean, and drink and CUSS.” Sometimes she’ll make fun of us for talking down to her. My aunt was asking her if she had to use the bathroom, and Mimi wasn’t responding so she asked the question louder and louder and finally Mimi looked at her and put on an exaggerated baby voice and said “No, mother, I don’t have to go potty right now.”

But these moments of levity are brief, and they don’t compensate for the prison stories, or the constant paranoia about people taking her things, or the anger about – well, about not being in control of anything, which is enough to make anyone angry. But the confusion is the worst. She often talks about how she feels so funny staying in “this woman’s” house, and she likes the decor but she doesn’t want to be a bother. Or she’ll start a story about something and stop mid-sentence because she’s lost a name or a word or the whole damn narrative, and the look on her face isn’t the kind of vague look you or I might get if we have a brain fart, it’s sheer terror that the world no longer holds together in a meaningful way, and she can’t figure out how to fix it. Her reality is fragmented and constantly shifting; her frames of reference don’t cohere, and she never feels like she knows what’s coming next. I can imagine what this is like just well enough to want to start stockpiling lethal doses of narcotics for myself right now, in case I’m ever in a similar state. It’s no way to live.

But, having said that, she is still living, and she’s still got enough of her mind left to enjoy visitors, even if she doesn’t remember that they came. I’ve been spending time with her doing her nails, or massaging her legs and feet with special lotions, and I know she treasures the time together. We sit and chat or look at photos, while Peculia sits over on her side of the room, taking her wig on and off, over and over again. I leave tomorrow evening, and my dad and stepmom are leaving too, and we’re all a little worried about how that will affect her. She’s already talking about how much she hates us to go, and it’s true that she perks up like a little flower in sun when people come to visit. I’m glad I came down to see her, glad I got to spend what will probably be the last time with her when she knows who I am. But I hope with all my heart that she can be released from this hellish existence soon, and meet the maker she’s believed in so devoutly for so long.

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