I find myself at the edge of another emotional precipice.
This one is spelled "Alzheimer's".
For me, it's only a shallow fissure, running up and down the map of my skin, parts crumbling painfully while other sections are almost imperceptible. I see it more clearly in my Aunt, the Designated Power of Attorney, or the DPOA as they sometimes refer to her at the care facility. She is heavy in this. She carries a binder so dense it has its own gravity, within it every medical decision, note, symptom and complaint for both of them, going back to 2006. "Someday," she tells me, "You'll have to make a binder like this for your parents."
I see it in my dad's cousin who recently lost her own father and sits at the table and says, "This is how this works: plateau, drop, plateau. It will be dramatic and sudden and then just become normal." She breaks down. Takes a tissue. Breaths deeply into the pain she's learned to carry; understanding better than any of us at the table that we're all about to learn how to put our own portion in a pocket.
"I think," my Aunt reports the doctor saying, "it's time to call in hospice." That word brings a sinking in the chest, tightness to the eyes, and a change in pulse. At the same time, some other less physical part hears that same word and lets go of a long held breath. "That's why you're all here." Around the table sits family, a social worker, several nurses, the director of the care facility (who just happens to be someone I went to High School with), papers, stethoscopes, coffee with cream, resolution. We are all crammed into a tiny room asking questions, raising concerns, clarifying what this paper means or what will happen "if" and "when".
My cousin and I pause outside her room and I say, "I haven't been here..."
She stops me and says, "You're here now."
"I don't know how to do this."
"Me neither" she calmly shrugs.
The years have taught her how to be present, kind, generous, supportive. I don't feel like the older one with knowledge anymore. She's been here. She's more of an expert in this and we both know it.
"Just bring your girls. She lights up when children are around. I don't know who she thinks they are, but she loves having them here."
My step-mother is holding her hand, gently stroking her delicate skin and leaning in when she speaks. A string of words come tumbling out, but they don't make any sense. She smiles at her mother-in-law, nods her head, makes her feel heard, even if she can't understand. I got only a disapproving look when I suggested she join in on the exercise leader she's been watching, her hand tapping along to the beat of the music. Another resident shakes sleep from her shoulders and turns towards the instructor, "YOU GET OUT OF HERE!" she demands. "I can't. I'm teaching a class." The instructor replies calmly and matter-of-factually.
That does the trick.
A large black cat crosses the room, inviting attention. I wiggle my fingers in the fur and feel like I can breathe again. I make an excuse and find my way back to my car in the basement, punching in codes as I exit the memory care floor. I answer email before starting the car. I wonder if when I'll cry. I miss her already. I try to plot when I can return with my daughters. I map the answers to their questions in my head; wonder if I'll be able to come up with anything that makes sense. I hear her voice, speech jumbled, confused. I miss her.
Honestly, I've been missing her for years already.
My grandparents, vibrant and amazing, a dozen years ago at my wedding.