It was taking responsibility, which can be a beautiful burden. That's how it made me feel, taking this on. Like it was a challenge I wanted to meet for my grandmother. For my grandfather. For my mother. For my aunts. For me. And it was a challenge. I remember sitting with a woman from hospice who came by one afternoon to tell us what to expect in caring for a patient with Alzheimer's. She told me that the hardest part for a caregiver was to think like the patient. "You have to try to enter what's going on in her mind," she explained. "If your Grandmother thinks something is happening, or if she thinks she's someplace long ago, don't try to convince her that she's not, because she'll just get scared."
That very night, I had a chance to put this counsel to the test. It was my turn on nightwatch. I was lying on the floor next to her bed so that I could be close. Suddenly, the sound of the bed rattling made me open my eyes. There was Grandmom, standing on the mattress, chatting calmly and specifically about going to work. In her head, she was a teenager, getting ready to go to the dress factory and start sewing tags. My first instinct was to reach for her and pull her down from the bed. I thought she'd fall and get hurt. But each time I reached for her she became more and more agitated. Then it came to me what the hospice worker had said about going along with my grandmother's "reality." Grandmom thought she was talking to one of her sisters. So I talked to her as if I was right there with her, like I was one of the girls.
"Betty," I explained, reaching for her arm, "the bus isn't coming right away. Maybe we should sit down and wait."
She responded, "No, no, no. I'm going to be late for work."
She didn't settle down, and again I was afraid she'd fall. So I tried a different approach. When we were younger, my grandmother would sing to us as we were falling asleep. So I started singing to her.
Without even thinking about it I started singing one of the hymns I remembered from going to church with her when I was a child. I recall feeling like I needed to pray, and this was what came out.
Holy, Holy, Holy Lord God Almighty . . . God in three persons Blessed Trinity.
I should mention here that I can't really carry a tune, but that didn't stop me—and Grandmom didn't seem to mind. I sat there in the dark room and quietly sang. The glow of the streetlamp outside her window cast a soft, blue light across her face. After a verse or two her mood began to change. The words, the melody…it seemed to reach her. What ever had been upsetting her melted away, and she calmed down. I held her arm and guided her as she lay back down, then sat on the bed beside her. She rested her head on the pillow and I stroked her hair the way she had stroked mine so many times when I was a little girl.
"Good night, Grandmom," I whispered.
This was how we took turns saying good- bye to Grandmom, and taking care of Grandpop, and reconnecting with each other—reestablishing the relationships that would sustain us for the rest of our lives.
Later I overheard my aunt Karen telling my sisters, the next overnight team, "And Chris learned that if you sing her a church hymn, she really responds to it." To me, her words signaled a sea change in our family dynamic. It felt to me like there had been a shift. I had taken my place at the adult table.