“Women have served all these centuries as looking glasses possessing the magic and delicious power of reflecting the figure of man at twice its natural size.“
“Shakespeare had a sister. She died young—alas, she never wrote a word. She lies buried where the omnibuses now stop, opposite the Elephant and Castle. Now my belief is that this poet who never wrote a word and was buried at the cross–roads still lives. She lives in you and in me, and in many other women who are not here to–night, for they are washing up the dishes and putting the children to bed. But she lives; for great poets do not die; they are continuing presences; they need only the opportunity to walk among us in the flesh.“
― Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own
It is early morning and the sky is still dark. The house is silent save for the soft sleeping sounds of grandma in her temporary bedroom next door. She now sleeps in her art studio, conveniently fitted with a Murphy bed. A few years ago, my husband and father spent a sweaty afternoon arranging the pieces of the bed, screwing parts of it into the wall, and making sure that it folded up as it should. Of course, the Murphy bed was intended for guests, but everything has changed. Grandpa wakes too often in the night, so an aide comes every evening at eight o’clock for the night shift. Her name is Alphia and she sits by his bedside, waiting for grandpa to need the bathroom or ask his re-orienting questions in the middle of the night.
“Where is Eileen? What time is it? Why won’t you put this bar down?” he asks repetitively. He hates the bar across his hospital bed which now sits next to the double bed he once shared with my grandmother. He hates the constriction, the lack of freedom to move and do as he pleases.
More than forty years ago, my grandmother wanted to be a tennis instructor. She was a fabulous tennis player, a sport she began training for at the early age of ten, while still living in Scotland. She immigrated to New York when she was nineteen years old and met my grandfather soon after. After a wedding and four children, she found herself in her early forties, being offered her first job opportunity since giving birth to her eldest daughter nearly twenty years before. My grandfather made the decision for her. He did not want her to work. He felt that her place was in the home. He felt more comfortable that way. That warm feeling of knowing his wife was contained within a large, suburban house-shaped prison where she could prepare a hot dinner for him each evening.
Last night I sat beside grandma on the sofa after grandpa had gone to bed. The aide had helped him to get from his recliner to his wheelchair, from his wheelchair to the toilet, from the toilet to the sink to wash his hands and brush his teeth, and from the sink to the bed where his diaper needed to be changed and his pajamas wiggled over his stiff and heavy body. I waited to hear the predictable rhythm of his deep snoring. I looked grandma in the eye and rather than turn on Netflix or discuss plans for the following day, I decided to be honest.
When does it stop? Can it stop? More importantly, do you want it to stop?
My grandmother has sacrificed for my grandfather since she was nineteen years old. She now has the power to stop, and the money to make it all possible. She is an intelligent, emotional, and wealthy woman (in money and in love), with more resources than most people in the world could ever even dream about. If she could get out of her own way, the possibilities are endless. If she could finally choose herself, the possibilities are infinite.
I picture a life for her where she finally has a house of her own. A place of her own where she can breathe. I envision her visiting my grandfather every day in a facility with staff who are trained to care for people like him—people who have lost most of their memory and the ability to care for themselves. I envision her painting every day in her small studio with the soft sunlight streaming across her canvas. I envision her going to the beach and making friends. I envision the last years of her life full of female energy and support—from friends, family, and caring professionals. I envision her sleeping well in a bedroom without hospital beds or glow-in-the-dark bottlenecked urinals–but instead a feminine space that has been designed with only her needs in mind. Her needs! What a fucking revolution! What if her needs were the priority? So the question looms—do we move him to a nursing home? Do we rip him from the comfort he has known all is life so that instead, grandma can be comfortable? If grandpa’s daily needs are met—food, shelter, company, care—could the energy in this house be shifted so that grandma enjoys the end of her life on her own terms?
Before she immigrated to the United States, my grandmother used to travel around Scotland—sometimes for tennis tournaments, sometimes with her girlfriends—staying in youth hostels around the country. She was young and she was free. Her life was her own.
It is a radical thing for women to claim ownership of their own lives. It is a radical thing to shelve the needs of men, to leave them alone where they sit so that a woman can finally find the space to breathe. It is a radical act for women to prioritize themselves in a world that has always told them to care for others. It is a radical act for a woman to give herself permission to enjoy her life, on her own terms—no matter how guilty a man might make her feel for doing so. It is a radical act to say “enough” while still remaining compassionate, caring, and loving. It is a radical act to fall on the floor in a million pieces and then allow others to help pick you back up and put you together again.
When my grandmother was a small girl, it was the middle of world war two and resources were scarce, toys were even more so. She once told me a story of a china doll that her mother had given her. The doll had two halves, a front and back, which were glued together. One day when she was playing with the doll, it split in half along this center line that glued front to back. She was devastated and crying. She ran from her friends’ house back to her mother and thrust the doll into her mothers’ hands. My great-grandmother looked at my grandmother and began to laugh. She took some glue from a drawer and glued the two halves back together. It is a radical act to glue ourselves back together, just like my great-grandmother did for my grandmothers’ doll—to laugh at the broken pieces and realize how all along they were just fragments of a whole.
This is what grandma must do now. So many people love and support her. She has everything she needs. It would be a radical act for her to take that support, embrace it, and listen to the call of her own inner voice—the one that has been there, waiting for her all along. As a woman, it is a radical act to listen to our inner voices and follow our intuitions, regardless of the consequences. We must save ourselves and unfortunately, for women of this world, that is the most challenging but revolutionary decision we could ever make.
Facing this challenge is the answer. We will rise to it? Can we? More importantly, do we want to?
How I hoped for my mother to have the freedom that you write about at the end of her life; sadly she passed before my father and in doing so did not get to enjoy a large inheritance from her aunt. She could have had a peaceful, fulfilling and interesting life. Full of freedom and choice. At the time of writing my father still lives.
Hi Wendy. I am so sorry to hear this. This is a difficult dynamic to witness. I think I write about it because I am unable to really fix anything. I can only bear witness and be by my grandmothers’ side. I feel a profound sense of grief for her and women like her (your mother). Thank you so much for sharing.
Saskia, My heart is with you and your family. Thank you for sharing this vulnerable moment. You are held in love by all of us. This is a profoundly challenging situation. Your love and care is obvious and in asking her those difficult questions.
I have been through this with my mother-in-law where she did, eventually, allow us to find a nursing home for her husband. There was deep heartbreak in the transition itself. It both allowed for more ease and joy to reenter her life, and it was a struggle for her to see her husband in the setting of a nursing home. Witnessing decline is difficult in either setting because the loss and the mourning have already started, particularly with memory impairment. Being with your grandmother, as a loving companion and withness, ready to support her efforts at home or outside of it, is a precious gift. I hope that your grandmother listens to her inner voice and shares it out loud so that all of her loving resources can help her do what she wants in her heart of hearts.
In another setting, in my parent’s home, while my mother was in hospice for cancer, I feared for the day I had to leave after helping them for six weeks. My brother and sister also helped, but I happened to have the biggest chunk of time. Before my departure, we researched care providers and urged my parents to hire nighttime help. We worried for my father. In the end, my mother set me straight. With full awareness of his oversights and memory slips but also with full awareness of his dedication to caring for her, she looked me right in the eye and said, “I have complete faith in your dad’s ability to care for me.” That statement shook me out of my own fears and gave me a clear glimpse into their hearts. They knew the risks, had discussed the options, and had decided to press on without nighttime help outside of the family. It was a boundary that resonated with the strength of my mother’s inner voice. I had been so entirely convinced of what would be best for them, and in the end, it was not what they wanted. She passed peacefully a few weeks later, in the night, after my sister had arrived to help. We all believe that Mom hung on until my sister arrived, just to ensure that Dad had support when she let go.
No matter how your grandmother’s situation unfolds, hold yourself and her in love and recognition that this is so, so difficult. All the questions are so important and all of the answers are, too. Be brave in asking and be open in listening. Be gentle with yourself and with her and know that you are doing a really important thing by just sharing some of that time.
Wow, Kelly. These two stories are so helpful to read. I also hope my grandmother can listen to her inner voice. Ultimately, the decision must come from her. Thank you so much for sharing. These shared stories are the best kind of solidarity.