Monday, November 23, 2009

Compassion Without Judgement: Berit

I am not very good with the elderly.

I know I'm supposed to be, as a girl (ahem. woman.), a mother, a daughter, a granddaughter. And I hope I come off as nice, which sometimes makes you think that person might be helpful and positive and cheery most of the time. Well, it makes me think so. So maybe I'm just not very smart.

So there's my secret: I'm not good with my grandparents. My mother's parents, to be technical. Growing up, we were very close -- they took us on vacations and to dance class and they came to all of our recitals and school parties and were basically an extension of my parents. In fact, during the years just before and after my parents' divorce, they stepped in and helped us more than anyone else (that I know of). They were very, very involved.

As we got older they began traveling and we moved north and we started seeing each other on holidays and baptisms. But still -- grandparents.

Then they started to get sick. Grandma got sick first, I guess. While my grandpa has diabetes and high blood pressure (and a lifelong smoking habit), he did take care of himself, mostly, or enough at least to stay involved in the Democratic Club and the school board and generally telling people what they should do, when, and how. Grandma sort of gave up. We weren't sure what was wrong, besides eye problems. We assumed dementia, and a doctor or two said yes, another doctor or two said no. That's how she acted, and my mom moved them up to live near her in Greenville.

Long story short, over the past few weeks my grandpa has nearly died various times and was finally moved to a nursing home in Ohio with my grandmother. My grandma has been there for a few years, near my aunt who is dedicated to caring for her, and has had one major stroke, several mini strokes, and has a condition where her muscles are tight all the time, and she can barely talk or move.

My family has, over the past few years, insisted she was about to die. My grandpa, too. I think they were right at that moment, that it really did seem like they wouldn't make it through what they were going through. But they did. Makes me feel good to be part of such hearty stock.

Now that my grandparents are both at the same nursing home, and since they're both seeming weaker than they've ever been, I booked flights for Berit and me to visit them over the weekend.

My grandma tries to talk, and though she's never met Berit that I can remember, she's been calling for her. Berit looks like my mom when my mom was little, and I think my grandma truly connects with her through the pictures we send and the stories we tell her.

I was nervous about how Berit would react. My grandparents are sick, and they look sick. My grandma in particular is pulled up and wails and cries a lot. Her eyes are half-closed and her mouth is open in a way that makes her teeth sort of stick out.

And I was not a good helper. I tried and I didn't back away, but I have to say that I was disappointed that when someone needed help, I took a second to let another one of my more comfortable family members (read: My sister, who is amazing in these situations and might be one of the most selfless people on earth, truly) step up.

However. Berit jumped right in, singing and laughing and even pushing in front of everyone to hold my grandma's hand, and when my grandma's roommate called out and no one went to her, and so I did and she was scared because she didn't know where she was or how she got there and I tried to tell her, but she couldn't hear me and I was trying to be reassuring, Berit wiggled in front of me and touched her arm. The woman couldn't see Berit, but Berit just knew what to do. I was so surprised and proud of her.

She sat with my grandpa and answered his questions and listened to his stories that were a little over her head but she just nodded and colored in her book and showed him her pictures. She was playing with a red balloon and made a point to tap it to everyone in our family, even my grandma and grandpa, never once assuming they shouldn't get a turn because she's nearly immobile or he's weak and in a wheelchair, and they both got right into it.

I was so glad to see that she Got It. She understood that, even though she didn't know these people, that they were family and even if people around her looked sick (she did notice that; she asked my sister if everyone "had a fever"), she could comfort them.

This might seem like, "Oh how nice, mm-hmm, good for her." But I was shocked, because I am not that way. If it were my own mom or dad, or husband or brother or sister or of course my kids -- and even my sister's husband -- I could handle it, would jump right in, wouldn't think twice. But Berit knew what to do, and it was fascinating to watch a natural characteristic come out for the first time. She became a bit more of her own person then, and less of an extension of me.

In school one day one of the moms who was helping told me, "Berit is a very thoughtful girl. She always makes sure everyone is happy." And I was happy, more than happy, to hear this, because school can be a busy, noisy place, and Berit must do this on her own, as part of her personality, because there's not always time to purposely be polite.

I was so touched that she gave my grandparents the gift of family, of great-grandchildren, for probably the last time we'll ever see them. They never took her out to sell candy at the bowling alley for school, they never swam in a too-cold pool with her because they cared enough about her to brave goosebumps. She didn't drive over the Ambassador Bridge or through the tunnel to Canada with them every few weekends. She doesn't know the smell of their house, sausage and cigarettes and cats, by heart. But she loved them anyway. And they loved her.

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