The Only Thing Worse is the Alternative

I came to St. Louis on the trip because of my grandmother. She is 87. She fell a few years ago and hurt her back and is in a lot of pain–she can no longer come visit us in San Francisco so we need to come here. She loves having us. She delights in my children. When we come to town my cousin from South Carolina brings her two children. My grandmother’s great grandchildren are her reason for living.

She loves for us to be here but it’s hard. The house is small. It’s not designed with children in mind. There isn’t a lot of space or a lot of toys. There isn’t much for them to do or ways for them to entertain themselves. We spend a lot of time at my aunt’s house where my cousin and her kids stay, but there are still plenty of hours to pass here at my grandmother’s house. It’s hard but I know it means so much to her. I know we have to do it.

I love my grandmother. We lived far away growing up but we spent every summer here and for those six weeks we lived in this very house, the house where my father grew up. I feel at home in this house in ways I don’t feel at home in most other people’s homes. And yet it’s still hard.

What is hard is my grandmother. It’s hard to see her so old, so frail, so in pain. She struggles with everything. She really shouldn’t live alone but she doesn’t want to leave. I don’t envy my two aunts who live nearby and are tasked with taking care of her. I don’t envy my father and her sisters and having to figure out what to do with their frail mother who can’t really live on her own but won’t admit she needs to be cared for.

Staying with my grandmother is like staring death in the face. She knows she doesn’t have many years left on this earth. Her husband died over 20 years ago. Most of her friends are dead (as she has reminded me a dozen times since I arrived). She hates being old–“the only thing worse is the alternative.” The alternative will be her reality soon.

It’s hard to see my grandmother so old. It’s hard to recognize that once she’s gone my parents are next. My dad will turn 64 this year. Mi.Vida’s father will be 70. Our parents are getting up there, and we are following close behind. Time marches forward and this too shall pass. This life. Our existence. My grandmother will pass, and my parents will follow and some day, it will be my turn.

It’s hard to see my grandmother struggle, to see her fight the feelings of resentment surrounding how little she can do with the gratitude she feels just to be alive and living in her own house, reveling in her great grandchildren. I feel frustrated that she refuses to face the reality of her situation (she was recently hospitalized for dehydration because her back pain gets so bad she doesn’t go to the kitchen to eat or drink), and empathy for how impossible it must be to face a future in a nursing home. My mother keeps starting things with, “When I get old, don’t let me…” and it makes me shift in my seat because I don’t want to imagine my mother getting old, and I know she’ll never listen to a damn word I say when she does.

It’s hard, living with someone who likely won’t live long, who’s already on borrowed time when it comes to inhabiting her own house. It’s hard to stare the future in the face and to realize that if I live as long as my grandmother I will be incredibly lucky, because the only thing worse than old age, is the alternative.

One response

  1. I love this post, because it is so true. It is hard watching loved ones age and deteriorate. And my husband and I regularly say to ourselves (because we can’t say it to our children) “when we get old, I hope we don’t …” – a comment that is usually related to something we’ve seen his parents do. And so I had to laugh to your comment about your mother too – “… I know she’ll never listen to a damn word I say …” – as I can relate.

    The best thing though about your post is your last sentence – recognising that you (we) will be incredibly lucky if you (we) live to a good old age. I want to be grateful in my old age. Because there is a third alternative, one that is worse than old age. And that’s not wanting to live in your old age, not being grateful for the time you have to spend with loved ones, but at the same time refusing to deal with the issue, and living determinedly in misery. We’re dealing with that with an elderly relative. And that’s hard too.

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