I hold her hand softly, stroking it all the while. I check to see if her blanket is set properly so that she doesn't feel too cold in the air-conditioned room. I smooth her hair and forehead, and in the process, she opens her eyes for a second to see who it is. I smile at her in my friendliest way possible and after a few seconds her eyes droop close again and I go back to stroking her forehead, not knowing if she recognised me or not. Perhaps not. For this is my 72-year-old grandmother, and she is currently living her second childhood.
I still remember my earliest recollections of the summer vacations when we would come to Bangladesh to visit my grandparents. I was about five or six years old about that time. I used to be a tiny bit afraid of my authoritative, imposing, army-retired grandfather and so used to spend most of my time with my sweet, alert grandmother. I used to love her for the small ways she used to make me feel at home, like always frying two pieces of the hilsa fish, especially for me and helping me separate the bones out while eating this favourite fish of mine.
My grandmother was also very creative and she used to knit sweaters and stuff for her grandchildren. I remember the joy with which I beheld a woolly pink sweater she had knitted for me. I could not imagine anyone actually sitting down and taking the time to knit a sock, much less a whole sweater! For me, the source of clothes was always the supermarket and it warmed my heart to wear such a labour of love in winter. I would strut about the house and outside proudly, telling anyone who cared to listen how my own grandmother had made the sweater I was wearing. She had knitted a lot of other things in her own days when my mother was young and when my older sisters were also young. And she also used to make things like ketchup, sauces, chutneys etc. for everyone.
I go out of my grandmother's room for a few minutes while my aunt prays in the room and when I came back, I can see my aunt bending over and soothing her mother about something yet again. 'What's the matter Amma? Do you want something to eat?' 'Am I not human? Don't I feel hungry too? Are you going to starve me the whole day?' sobs my grandmother heartbreakingly in reply. After my aunt assures her that there is plenty of food in the house, all for her. She takes me aside and says that she had just told Nanu that after she had finished praying, they would sit down to lunch together and asked if she would wait for a few minutes. Apparently Nanu had cheerfully agreed but had started crying about her hunger in the span of a few minutes. And this is one of the few examples of the way Nanu's mind swings from one mood to the next.
My grandmother had always been a selfless creature. She would manage the house and servants beautifully and would do so in such a way that no one really understood how valuable her contribution was to the household. But now that her mind has, figuratively, turned to mush, we all understand what she used to handle. I remember peeking into our big kitchen at my grandparents house and seeing Nanu sitting on a stool, with all the commanding air of the mistress of the house, while she went over the week's groceries kept on the floor (vegetables, fish etc) with the maids, each time noting down in a little black book the current prices of foodstuff in the market among other things. How well I remember the little black book she used to carry and her neat Bangla writing inside of it, concerning the things she needed to remember to keep a smooth household running.
Nanu has slowly been getting worse as the years go by. At first, it was just short-term memory loss with all the obvious symptoms of ageing, like the inability to climb upstairs. But now she suffers from dementia and psychosis. From what I've read up on the internet I'd say it was Alzheimer's disease as a lot of the symptoms match. She can't remember who the people around her are or can't bring into her memory any recent event. For example, a few days ago when I was sitting with her, she asked me twice in a span of 15 minutes who she was i.e. what her name was.
She was also a whiz at handling young kids. She took care of my two older sisters when they were young, all by herself, for a few years when my parents were working in the Middle East. She never complained once and my eldest sister still remembers Nanu helping her with homework and walking her to school. Now she can't even remember who she is.
As time progresses, new symptoms and problems arise, making the situation of those who care for her, even more difficult. Last year, she had UTI (Urinary Tract Infection) and as a result her abdomen swelled to the size of a sizeable balloon because she had difficulty passing urine. She was hospitalised twice last year with no improvement. Once my aunt even considered buying adult size diapers for her mother so that she wouldn't mess up her sari. Added to this are the sudden behaviour changes she experiences. Just a few nights ago, she spent a sleepless night, muttering nonsense, frequenting the bathroom and just walking around the house aimlessly. The worst thing I think is the notion she sometimes gets that someone is out to get her. At theses times, she gets violent and uses a lot of bad language to ward off the 'people who are trying to kill her'. It sometimes really scares me to see a loved one suffer from such terrible hallucinations.
Due to the deteriorating condition of my grandmother, the people around her are also affected. My aunt, who takes cares of her, has to stay close to her almost 24/7 not knowing when she might start going berserk. Since Nanu has totally become a child, my aunt needs to constantly monitor her, mother her and make her feel important and loved all the time, just like any two-year-old. There also is my sweet, ailing grandfather, who is otherwise quite healthy but suffers from old age complications. A depressing environment like this is mentally affecting and I've noticed that when my grandmother is in a good mood, the general atmosphere of the house is congenial. The opposite also applies.
But I guess that is the actual definition of family. Because regardless of whether she can recognise me or recall my name or why I'm there, it's the fact that she's my grandmother that makes her so dear to us all and that we will always be there for her to count on.
(R) thedailystar.net 2006