At Opposite Ends of Life but Similar Crossroads, Thanks to COVID-19

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The author and her grandmother. Photo courtesy of Kate Cammell

By Kate Cammell

Her Alzheimer’s began a few years ago, showing itself in waves and growing quietly as the rest of my family carried on with our lives. It started with the small things we all do, like forgetting where she put her keys, then it progressed to her asking me what classes I was taking three times over the course of a single dinner. Each time it was if she’d never heard me answer before. But then the grandma I knew growing up would reappear, talking to me about the plots of novels and reminiscing in granular detail about our memories together.

This year it was getting harder to predict which version of her would answer the phone.

Before COVID-19 shuttered Columbia’s campus, I’d call my grandma after classes on my way home. Walking from Pulitzer Hall to a bus stop on 116th Street, I’d tell her about what I was writing and what I was doing that night. She’d talk about the politics of her nursing home’s dining hall or what book was on her nightstand.

Sometimes in the middle of our calls she’d ask me where I was living. So, I’d remind her that I moved to New York in August for grad school. That I was in her city now. She’d apologize for forgetting and say, “of course.”

After I’d complain about my commute home on a crosstown bus that felt like it stopped every 20 feet, she’d one-up me with the story of her commute to Hunter College, back when it was a women’s-only school and when she was 17. Catching the bus was just the beginning. After that, she’d take the subway from the Bronx to 69th Street in Manhattan. I loved picturing her at my age. And commiserating together about the logistics of this city.

But then, like clockwork, she’d always ask me again before we hung up, “Where are you living now?”

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The author’s Grandma Rita and Grandpa Carl on their wedding day in June 1953. Photo courtesy of Kate Cammell

My Grandma Rita was born in 1926 in a working-class neighborhood of Throgs Neck in the Bronx. She loved school but had to drop out of Hunter College because her family didn’t have the money. She worked in millinery and as a typist. Then, she moved to Detroit after marrying my grandpa. Years later, she took night classes at the University of Michigan and got her teaching degree. When my grandpa passed away at 52, she continued working as a middle school teacher and eventually became an assistant superintendent. She worked until 70, then moved two hours down the road to Grand Rapids, Michigan, where my family lived. And ever since her arrival in my town in second grade, she’s been my best friend.

I slept over at her condo nearly every Friday night from grade school to high school. We had the same routine each time. We’d eat Chinese food, play Monopoly and watch a movie. Our favorite was Hello Dolly; we’d stand up and belt out lyrics with Barbara Streisand before collapsing side-by-side on the couch between showtunes.

She spoiled me, educated me, and by many accounts, she raised me. Now we’re 745 miles apart. I’m in her city. She’s in mine. And calling one another, which used to bridge our distance, isn’t so simple anymore.

Just before I embarked on my undergraduate studies, my grandma moved into an independent living apartment in a nursing home. We were entering opposite ends of life but, like always, we found common ground. It was the first time living in a group setting for each of us, and neither of us is very fond of change.

Her move came at one of those nothing-short-of-divine-intervention moments. In the years since, her memory has grown worse and worse. The last time I saw her, in January, she told me that sometimes she didn’t know where she was. I wasn’t sure what to say to comfort her. So, I just squeezed her hand and held it. Something I wish so badly I could do now.

One of the things grounding my grandma has been her routine. My mom would pick her up every week and take her to the grocery store, though she never really needed food. She needed the feeling of normalcy. The simple act of waiting in line at checkout assured her that she still belonged within the social fabric of the outside world.

Since nursing homes have locked their doors to visitors during this crisis, my mom hasn’t been able to see my grandma — her mom — in a month. She called to explain what was happening, describing the global spread of the coronavirus, but my grandma had trouble understanding. Hours later, she forgot about their conversation and asked what time she should be ready to go to the store.

It’s difficult even for me to comprehend this new world we’re inhabiting. It often feels surreal. But for my grandma, the loss of routine and contact that’s accompanied the pandemic has been devastating.

Last week she had to be moved to the memory care unit of her nursing home. Permanently. None of us could be with her during the transition. But my mom talks with her on the phone every day. And every morning she has to explain again why they can’t see each other.

I haven’t called my grandma since her move. I worry that adding a new variable to her day will upset her more. And if I’m honest, I also worry that I won’t know what to say to her.

My grandma thinks she’s in a hotel now. She worries that the concierge won’t have her car ready for her when she leaves, though she hasn’t driven in four years. She talks about needing to call in sick to the school where she works, though she hasn’t worked there in nearly 24 years.

In many ways, this was a long time coming and the pandemic was just the final blow for her. She’s in a new reality, but once again, we’re at similar crossroads, both getting acquainted with a loss of control.

I’m happy that she’s safe and grateful for the caretakers showing up for her each day, assuming health risks to do so. But I’m also sad that the version of the woman I grew up knowing and loving is gone, though it feels odd to grieve for someone who’s still alive in a pandemic causing so much death.

In journalism school, I’ve been taught to place words like “probably” or “likely” before phrases I can’t prove. But this era is reminding me that few things are really certain in this life. One thing that I am sure of is that I’m here, studying in this city, because of my grandma.

She read with me, gifted me notebooks, took me to the library. She typed stories for me as I dictated them to her when I was too young to use the computer. She told me to be a writer when my parents were skeptical that it was a career and not just an art. She ended every phone call by saying she was proud of me, even when she didn’t know where I was anymore.

I’m planning to call my Grandma Rita this weekend when I don’t have to focus on school or work. Because I know our conversation will weigh on me. It’ll make completing my reading for business class feel trivial. It’ll hurt to know the depths of her confusion and to potentially have my fear confirmed, that my call will do her more harm than good.

But I want to tell her I love her.

I think about her every day and hope that whatever hotel she thinks she’s in has nice sheets, a good breakfast and some sense of comfort: those little things that make the difference on excursions from what we know — from home.

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Grandma Rita holding a flower from the garden of the author’s parent in Grand Rapids, Michigan. The prayer bracelet on her wrist was gifted to her by the author after a trip to India in 2016. She wears it every day. Photo courtesy of Kate Cammell

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