In the past couple years I've gotten to know Gummy in a way that the previous thirty years couldn't cover.
Despite the fact that I've always lived a good distance away from my mother-in-law, I got to know her well. No matter where we lived my in-laws visited. Usually they stayed a couple of weeks. And I'm not talking about one visit a year. Oh, no, especially after I had her grand-kids—then they came a few times a year.
I used to say for someone who never lived near her in-laws, I saw them more than people who live across the street from theirs.
At first I wasn't too thrilled about that.
Gummy knew. She always knew. I could never lie to her, because she always knew.
That made for a tough go when she moved here to the shire with her dementia.
When can I go home?
Where are my boys?
I knew better than to lie, but I knew better than to tell the truth.
A lie would upset her.
The truth would wreck her.
I'd try to come up with a half truth.
You can go home when your dementia gets better.
It's your turn to watch Poppy, not mine.
I have no idea where your boys are, but it probably involves hunting or fishing.
She knew I wasn't being completely honest. But she'd let it slide, especially if I distracted her with an outing, an activity, or family gossip.
The staff at memory care followed the same techniques. Their motto is to keep the people living there happy. Despite this god-awful disease, their goal was to make those suffering with dementia and Alzheimer's as happy as possible.
Gummy was not falling for that garbage.
Every single day she packed to go home. She plotted escape plans with the other residents.
Every single day Juan or I would get a phone call because Gummy was an escape risk. It became my job to explain to her why she needed to stay.
The problem was the way the disease presented in her, she could not remember any new information. Not for one minute. So our conversations would loop in circles. They'd go on until she simply got bored with me.
I don't know what you're talking about because you're not making any sense.
If you say so, but I have to go pack. Someone's taking me home tonight.
Or my favorite,
Okay, I'll stay until tomorrow, but only for you...which she'd forget within a minute.
But what I learned about my clever, smart, fun mother-in-law during the past couple years is that despite this mentally crippling disease she was still the same person.
Until the very end she was still clever, smart, and fun. Think of it like somebody who gets paralyzed from the neck down but manages to go on with their life.
She never got mean.
She never raised her voice at me.
She never felt sorry for herself.
Don't misunderstand. She was a subversive little terrorist with the staff at memory care.
She planned coups that will go down in infamy.
She was completely uncooperative.
And she was the queen of snark and naughty comments.
They adored her.
What I learned about my clever, smart, fun mother-in-law is that she was the real deal. She never pretended to be anything but what she was. Family came first with her. She loved her family. She adored her grandchildren. She knew how to be happy.
All she wanted was to get back to her wonderful life.
Years ago she told me if she could have one impossible wish, it would be to go back for one day and be a kid again and play with her brothers and sisters.
What day? I asked her.
After a moment's thought, she said, Any day. Every one of them was wonderful.
Gummy was a genuinely happy woman. She had a beautiful life and she knew it. That damn disease stole her golden years, it stole her memories, it stole her ability to walk, talk, swallow, and at 3:06 p.m. on Sunday, November 19th it stole her ability to breathe.
But it did not steal her life. She had a beautiful life and she knew it.
Until the last year she hobbled through her days, deteriorating but determined to function. But Gummy had not just vascular dementia, she had Alzheimer's disease too.
No amount of moxie could best those diseases in the end. But damn did she try. Watching her fight was both heartbreaking and a privilege.
Over the past thirty years she showed me by example how to be braver and how to live in the moment—but these past two years she showed me how to never give up, how to go down fighting, how to take whatever life throws at you and carry on.
My Gummy showed me her beautiful life. She even shared some of it with me. Now I bear witness and tell you absolutely nothing that happened to her changed the fact that she was a beautiful woman, and she had a beautiful life.