Old Age is Not for Cowards / Charity Tasting
I didn't know either of my grandfathers - my Mom's Dad died when she was 11 years old and my Dad's father passed away when I was 2. I always thought about how it's strange that you can have deep relationships with people you've never known, never met. Sometimes, the relationships with the people you do know are all the more strange though. My two grandmothers couldn't be more different - thankfully, both are still among us. My father's mother was always a very sharp and chipper woman with a good sense of humor but a body that did not listen to her soul. For as long as I remember, she had troubles walking and it's been a over a year now that she doesn't move from her bed at all. Despite that, she still keeps a fresh mind and talking to her on the regular is simultaneously amazing and heartbreaking. I can't imagine what it would be like to live out the rest of my life in a single room, four walls, nowhere to go but the mind always adrift. This however, is not her story. This is the story of my other grandmother, Hana.
We never had a good relationship. It wasn't bad either, we were just never really close. Neither of my grandmothers was the type that would help take care of the four of us when we were little, babysit, bake guilty pleasures. It was mostly because my Mom is superwoman and somehow magically did it all on her own without losing her sanity and/or asking for help, but in the case of Hana it was because well... She was a stubborn woman. I used to think she was just not a very nice person, in all honesty. She came to live with us when I was around 7 or 8 and she never hid the fact that she wasn't exactly pleased about the transition or that she didn't really like spending time with us, the kids. Always a very introverted person, she spoke very little and when you did get her to talk she' d usually complain using her favorite catchphrase "Everything sucks" (všetko je hrozné). Over time that catchphrase got reduced to just "hrozné" and I never thought I'd be happy to hear that word. There were better and worse moments but overall, I never felt particularly close to her. She was family, but by definition, not by feeling.
Years ago, she got diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease. This seems like a fitting time to disclose a fragment of the background to what formed her as a person. My grandmother is a doctor - pediatrician, of all ironic focuses. She was born before WWII and grew up in a small beautiful village near Blansko in the Czech Republic. She went to study medicine where she met my late grandfather, who to pay for college enrolled as a military doctor and got stationed in Ruzomberok which is where my Mom and I were both born. Left a widow at a young age with two small children during socialism, it seemed she wasn't destined for a 'good life'. Despite all circumstances though, she became one of the only (if not the only during socialist times) female director of the entire hospital, paid both of her daughters through college and more. She never remarried and developed quite an antagonistic relationships towards the male gender - my Dad could tell you stories.
How does this relate to her Alzheimer's though? Well, to a large degree, we now think that it was self diagnosed. Probably feeling the onset of early dementia symptoms, she came back one day from a routine doctor's check up 10 plus years ago and declared that she was diagnosed with Alzheimer's. It was probably simultaneously confusing to her as well as sounding more legitimate than "I'm just forgetting things". Disease progression is always individual but she was genuinely okay for a very, very long time - she took her medication, was regularly grumpy and still communicated. For over 8 years, none of us would have really said she had a particularly severe disease that impaired memory and cognitive function.
Then last summer, my parents and the kids went on vacation and I joked that "Oh it's going to be another one of those times where grandma gets sick while you guys are away". It was a running gag of sorts because it had happened three or fours times before that when they left, my grandmother got sick and I'd have to take her to the hospital or such. Little did I know.
That week, my life and the life of my entire family changed. Things with Hana went from a 100 to 5 in literally one day. It was like a deck of cards toppled on top of me and there was nothing I could do except pick up the pieces. From one moment to the next I had to bathe her, change her diapers, feed her, make sure she wouldn't hurt herself picking up random objects, make sure the front gate of the lawn was always locked so that she wouldn't go away, hide sharp objects and food from plain sight. The list goes on. She required 24 hour care and there was no way of knowing what was bothering her or hurting her because she was no longer speaking.
When my family returned, my Mom and I took turns for a couple months of taking care of her, keeping the kids out of the process. We had to scale back work, going into home office mode but even that didn't cut it as a certain point anymore. I'm sure I still haven't processed all the lessons those months taught me but one thing I know for sure is getting old is not for cowards. It is raw, deeply human, flawed, unforgiving. Endlessly tiresome. I was suddenly forced to take care of someone on an absolutely intimate level, someone I did not really feel very close to. For a long time I told myself that I'm doing it for my Mom, out of respect for a woman who gave birth to the most important person in my life. But life has a way of humbling you and teaching you things you didn't know you needed to learn. Through this arduous process, I fell in love with someone who arguably wasn't there anymore but through momentary flashes of gratitude and persona showed me more love than I thought was possible.
We recently cleaned out my grandmother's apartment to renovate it for the purposes of someone who can no longer really move or take care of themselves, making her bathroom bigger etc. It was an indescribably powerful evening - we stumbled across tens of old letters, hundreds of old photographs, cut outs of old newspapers articles about Alzheimer's disease. A cut out of an old SME newspaper article from 1994 with my Mom pictured in a beautiful dress saying she was only rivaled in beauty by Zdena Studenkova. Brushstrokes painting a portrait of a strong woman with a sentimental side to her that she would rarely show to anyone. My grandmother may have been a stark woman but she was a woman forged by misfortune who did not let life defeat her and had the strongest of roots. She's the bad weed you can never get rid off and now, my heart will never be rid of her either.
A society that doesn't take care of it's elderly is not one that should ever be deemed good. As is unfortunately usually the case, I hadn't ever given this topic much thought before I 'went through the wringer'. Almost every single person I've spoken to though has dealt with a similar predicament in one way or another. To each and every person who has ever experienced a love one afflicted with dementia, Alzheimer's, Parkinson's or any other of the many forms of mind and body deteriorating illnesses and taken care of them, I do not know your struggle. That is always individual. But I salute you, I love you and I honor you - it is not an easy task. Those who take care of the elderly with kindness and respect are my heroes.
Inspired by my grandmother Hana and the need to talk more about this topic, share stories and awareness I have decided to organize a charity tasting of the best of my wine cellar. The tasting will be held on the 16th of March from 6 p.m. onwards at wine bar Pinot U Bruna in Bratislava. All profits collected during the evening will be donated 1:1 to two organizations 50/50 split way - Czech organization Hura na Vylety, a wonderful story of a young man that organizes friendly, fun and affordable bus field trips for elderly people all around the country and Slovak organization AkSen that organizes everything from dating services (you heard me), pilates classes, field trips, language lessons, cognitive classes and provides practical advices to elderly people in predominantly Bratislava and Piestany, trying to expand operation to more cities.
For more information about the event click over here. I would be extremely happy if those of you who can would come - amazing wines will be served, a great cause will be supported and life in all forms will be celebrated. For those of you who won't be able to come but still want to donate, please get in touch with me and I will let you know how you can help.
Thank you and to my grandmother, I love you even if everything may suck. I know that now.