“It’s bath time, Madeline,” Frederick said. He wrapped an arm under his grandmother’s armpit, around her back, and started to lift her up from the chair. She looked at him with a scrunched brow.
“Bath?” she said. “No, I don’t need a bath.”
“Of course you do,” he said. “It’s eight o’clock. Eight o’clock is when you have your nightly bath.”
Now on her feet, she still held onto his sleeve for support. “Is it?”
“Yes, it is,” he said. “Now come on, I’ll help you.” Slowly, he walked her to the bathroom. He’d already brought in her CD player, and a towel was draped over the vanity mirror. She refused to take baths as long as that young man and old lady were watching from behind the sink.
“You’ll help me?” Granny Madeline said, stopping. “Oh, no, no. You can’t be here. I hardly know you.”
You raised me, Frederick thought, but he still smiled. “Don’t worry, Madeline, you’ll do the washing, not me. You’ll be covered up, too.” He picked the folded beach towel up from the toilet seat and spread it out to show how big it was. “I won’t see a thing with you washing underneath this. Alright?”
"I don't know...." she said. Her resistance was only natural, as a sense of decency rarely left Alzheimer's patients. Still, he knew Granny Madeline well, and when he offered to put some music on for her, she became much more agreeable. He selected Disk Three of the 100 Classic Hymns and Worship Songs collection she loved and played it through the small, countertop CD player. The first hymn was “He Hideth my Soul.”
Granny Madeline stood in her sweat pants and zip-up sweater, swaying with her eyes closed, singing along softly. She couldn’t remember Frederick’s name, but the hymns from her childhood still burned clear in memory. For how much longer she would be able to remember even those, he wasn’t sure, so he treasured the hymns as he’d once treasured the memory of his name.
“It’s time for you to undress,” Frederick said, and her eyes opened. She frowned, reluctant, but he held up the large beach towel to block her from view and convinced her to take off her sweatshirt and T-shirt. After that, he wrapped the towel around her, helped her step out of her sweatpants and panties, and led her to the tub steps. He held her hand and guided her into the tub’s plastic shower chair. “Yes,” he said, “lower yourself down, just like that.”
Once she was safely seated, he rolled up his sleeves and reached for a wash cloth and a bottle of liquid soap. He dipped the cloth in the water at Granny Madeline’s feet, rubbed in a dollop of soap, and had her take the sudsy rag in her hand that wasn’t keeping the towel wrapped around her shoulders.
“Now wash your arms, like this,” he said, rubbing a hand up and down his right arm. “Every inch. Under your armpits too.”
She stared at him for a moment, suspicious, then brought the wash cloth under the beach towel to begin washing. He watched carefully, reminding her now and then where to wash, how to wash. After a while, she began to lose herself in the act, and her focus wandered to the hymns. She absentmindedly let the towel part at her chest as she scrubbed, smiling and humming.
With her caught up in the bathing process, Frederick’s mind, too, was free to wander. He let himself drift off in her hymns, let himself remember—and soon, he imagined her voice lightening, her aged vocal chords unwinding and restoring to as they were sixteen years ago, when he was ten years old and she’d first taken custody of him. She’d sung the hymns to him every night back then, and he’d reacted then as he did now: overwhelmed by a sense of comfort and security. It had been something new to him at the time. Being able to sleep so peacefully, not having to fear that his father would stumble through the door and make a grab at him, mad with whatever drug he’d shot in his arm. Frederick remembered how often that used to happen—at least every other night—how his father would drag him into the hall to beat him, accusing him of things he never could have done. And he remembered his mother, too, the daughter of kind, loving Granny Madeline, who shied away from Frederick’s abuse to suckle a needle into the crook of her arm.
He remembered how after his father’s rages settled, Frederick would always stumble back to bed, and later, when his mother’s high had dissolved into guilt, she would join him under the covers, saying how sorry she was, how terrible a mother she was, and she’d brush a hand through his hair and sing the hymns Granny Madeline sang to her as a child. But the hymns had been meaningless then, the voice singing them hollow and cold.
There was a pause as the CD track finished, switched, and Granny Madeline paused along with it. When the next hymn, “A Perfect Salvation,” started to play, it only took a moment for that precious recognition to light within her eyes, and soon she was singing again.
Frederick stared after that remembering light even after she closed her eyes. He thought, You saved me, wishing he could say it aloud, desperate for her to understand his gratitude, his love. But he wouldn’t try, because he knew it would trouble her and confuse her. He also knew her condition would never change, that they were stuck like this. So in place of the spoken words he desired to say, he reaffirmed the silent vow he’d made when she was first diagnosed with Alzheimer’s: You were my savior and healer when I needed you most, Granny Madeline, and now it is my turn to be yours.
When she finished washing, Frederick let her rinse herself off with the shower head. Next, he helped her pat-dry off, slip into the nightgown he’d prepared, and then he walked her to her bedroom.
“You’re quite the gentleman,” she said, patting his arm at the bed’s side. “But I’m not sleepy.”
Difficult as always, he thought, but he didn’t get frustrated. He talked her into at least lying in bed—just for a quick sit, he said, just a few minutes—then pressed play on the bedroom CD player. The hymns poured out. She smiled, and Frederick smiled back.
* * * * *
Frederick hadn’t talked to his mother, Jan, in ten years. He’d been sixteen the last time, and it was around then that she’d divorced his father and gotten off of her cocaine addiction. “Clean for over a year now,” she’d said. Then, tentatively, she asked if Frederick wanted to move back in with her.
Had he thought it effective, he would have just refused. He was happier than he’d ever been, living with Granny Madeline, and he knew that Jan could never play the role of mother; he’d witnessed that himself. But she wouldn’t care how he responded, would she? No, he knew his mother; she’d be selfish and take him back home whether he wanted to go or not. So he decided to be spiteful. He threw her past neglect back in her face, telling her what it was like to be dragged out of bed every other night by a mad man and beaten before a mother who refused to protect him, who resorted instead to the pleasures of a needle to drown out her guilt and fear. “You think I can forgive you?” he’d said, and the pain on her face almost made him regret it.
After that, Jan never tried to regain custody. She suddenly relapsed—found drugged up by her CA sponsor—so she didn’t have much choice. When she was clean again, she didn’t try to contact him. She only ever talked to Granny Madeline, and only then a few occasions on the phone. She never visited. The last sign of her existence had come two years ago, when he was twenty-four—not long after he'd moved back in to take care of Granny Madeline—in the form of a wedding invitation. He’d tossed it in the trash.
Although Frederick never wanted to see her again, he fully expected to someday. Even so, it was quite a surprise when she showed up at his door.
It was around noon on Saturday, so Frederick was at home preparing lunch for Granny Madeline. During the weekdays, he relied on Anna, the in-house caregiver, to take care of such things while he was at work, but to keep costs manageable, he made sure to take over during the weekends and whenever he returned from his shifts. Not that he minded. Tiring as Granny Madeline could be to handle, it made him uncomfortable to leave her without his personal aid.
She sat in the corner of the kitchen at a round table covered with a plastic tablecloth, nibbling at cubes of cheese he’d cut for her. Frederick stirred a pot of tomato soup at the stove. As he glanced back to see how much cheese she had left to eat, the doorbell rang.
She looked up, confused, and he told her it was nothing, to keep eating. As he walked to the foyer, he remembered her recent habit of throwing her food away when he wasn’t looking, but he decided it would be fine. He’d only be gone a minute, and she hadn’t complained about her meal yet, which was usually the time she started getting mischievous. He continued to the front door and opened it.
It had been so long since he'd last seen his mother that it took a moment for him to recognize her. Rather than the pale, tired woman he remembered, she now had a healthy tan, and her wardrobe was vibrant: a frilly, pink blouse, capris, and a white-leather purse at her arm. A few more lines around her mouth and eyes, her black hair trimmed with gray strands. She stood there with a half-smile. “Hello, Freddy.”
Frederick narrowed his eyes. “What are you doing here?”
“I’m… I’m here to talk to you,” she said. She looked him over. “You’ve gotten really tall.”
It had been ten years. Of course he was taller. “And what do we have to talk about?”
Her half-smile fell. “Well…. You. And my mother. Can I come in?” His expression must have made the answer clear. “Come on, Freddy, she’s my mother, and… and you’re my son.”
“Am I, now?”
She sighed, looked away. “I know what you’re thinking. I know I’ve been a terrible mom. But please, let me inside. I just want to talk.”
You don’t deserve the opportunity to talk, he thought. Not to me, and after staying away this long, not to Granny Madeline either. You don’t deserve a damn thing.
“Freddy,” she said. “Please.” The pleading look in her eyes did little to persuade him. But there was also a sense of urgency. And what could be so urgent? he wondered. If she wanted to make peace with Granny Madeline, she was too late. It was hard to make peace with someone who couldn’t remember you. Maybe she just wanted to apologize and make peace with him in order to finish up CA, which wouldn’t take too long. But she couldn’t still be in that twelve-step program after all these years, could she?
Whatever it was, he could give her a few minutes. Then she'd have no reason to come back again.
Frederick stepped aside and, to Jan’s surprise, let her into the foyer. As she looked around—perhaps remembering her last visit those years ago—he started walking towards the kitchen. “I’ll only listen a few minutes,” he said. “And it will have to wait until Madeline is done eating.”
Jan turned her attention to him. “Madeline? So you outgrew calling her Granny?”
“Of course not,” he said. “But if she doesn’t know I’m her grandson, then how could I call her Granny? It would confuse her. Also, don’t call her Mom. Trust me, she doesn’t remember you either.”
She sighed. “I already know she doesn’t.”
She tugged at a leather strap on her purse. “Yes… I came by a couple Thursdays ago, but you weren’t here. A nice young lady let me in, and I talked with Mom.”
Frederick stopped. “Wait. On a Thursday?” He turned back to her, already glaring. “So you made her act like that?” The young lady must have been Anna, the in-house caregiver that watched over Granny Madeline. She hadn’t told him about any visitors—protecting her own job, probably—but he remembered returning home two Thursdays ago to find a distressed Granny Madeline.
“She was inconsolable for two days!” he said. “When I tried to help her, she’d bat away my hands. When I tried putting on her favorite hymns, she’d plug her ears and yell at me to shut it off. What the hell did you do?”
Jan recoiled. “I…. It’s been ten years since I’ve seen her, Freddy! I didn’t know how far the Alzheimer’s had progressed. I was just a little shocked, and I wanted her to…. Well, I wanted her to remember me!” The leather strap on her purse groaned under her hands.
Frederick sighed, then said, “Idiot.” He glanced at the kitchen doorway. He didn’t want this fight to get any louder; it would trouble Granny Madeline. She was still in there eating cheese cubes, and she’d be needing her soup any minute now. She needed him.
“You stay in here,” he said, pointing at the living room couch. “You obviously can’t keep a calm mind around her.”
Jan opened her mouth to argue, but realizing how frail her son’s continued hospitality was, she kept quiet. Instead of sitting on the couch, she continued to stand in the foyer and stared down at her hands as Frederick walked into the kitchen.
Granny Madeline’s bowl was empty, as he’d expected, and she sipped at a glass of milk through a straw. When she saw Frederick, she let the straw fall out of her mouth. “Am I done?”
“Not yet, Madeline,” he said. “We still have your soup.”
She frowned. “I don’t want any. It tastes bad.”
“Come on, it’s not that bad.”
“Oh, but it is.”
He couldn’t blame her. With her taste buds failing, he doubted many foods were too appetizing. But he needed her to finish so he could get rid of Jan. “Just a little bit of soup, Madeline, okay? Then you’ll be done.”
Her frown deepened, but thankfully she was a little more cooperative today. “Oh, alright.”
He took a bowl from the cabinet, and on his way to the stove pot, he checked the garbage and sink to be sure she hadn’t thrown away her cheese cubes. Didn't look like it. He started ladling out the tomato soup, and as he took a taste to make sure it wasn’t too hot, Granny Madeline said, “Who are you?”
He paused, then turned around to find Jan standing in the doorway. She held her purse at her chest. “Freddy…” she said.
Frederick set down the bowl with a loud clap, sloshing the red broth, and walked over to block Jan from view. “She’s no one, Madeline. I’ll be back in a minute.” As he stepped through the doorway, Jan backed up and tried to speak, but Frederick wouldn’t let her. “Get out. Right now.”
“No, Freddy, I—”
“Do not call me Freddy,” he said. “Just get out.”
“Leave! I want you out of this—”
“Listen to me!” Jan shouted, her face turning red. “Freddy—Frederick, I’m scared!” She brought a hand to her forehead. “I’m… I’m terrified to be here. I was a horrible mother to you, I have no right to talk to you, but now…. Frederick, I feel like I’m going to run out of here any second, so please just listen to me. It may be too late for me to be a good mother, but at least let me stop being so bad of one.” She paused to take a breath. “Mom made you her conservator, so I need you to agree…. Frederick, let me put her in a nursing home. It’s what’s best for everyone. I’m married again, and my husband has enough money to—”
“No!” Frederick said, appalled. So this was what she needed to say. “There’s no way in hell I’d abandon her in a nursing home. She has me.”
“Frederick, you’re twenty-six years old,” she said. “You’re too young to spend all your time taking care of your grandmother. It’s aging you! You look thirty-five, and you sound older. You only have so much youth in your life. Your grandmother wouldn’t want you wasting it.”
“Wasting it?” Frederick said. “I am not wasting anything. She took me in and raised me after you and Brian screwed it up. She gave me my youth. Putting her in a nursing home would be just as bad as if she’d turned me away as a kid.”
“But it’s best for her, too, Frederick! You wouldn’t be betraying her in any way. After I saw how far gone she was, I met with a doctor, and he said she should be moved into a specialized nursing home. You just don’t have the equipment to keep up with her condition.”
“We do just fine!” Frederick said.
“But for how much longer?
“For as long as we—”
A clatter from the kitchen cut them off. They looked at each other, unsure. Then Frederick remembered that Granny Madeline was alone inside. He rushed to the kitchen with Jan close behind.
They found her curled on the linoleum near the stove, in a red pool flecked with bits of cracked ceramic. He first thought it to be blood, but after realizing it was the bowl of tomato soup he’d left in her sight, he felt no relief. Granny Madeline looked up at him, and she held his eyes, staring widely, painfully, the left side of her mouth frowning as the other tried to open, tried to speak….
He heard a quiet sigh, and nothing else.
* * * * *
The morning sun shone through the blinds of Granny Madeline’s hospital room. The CD player was set for her favorite hymns, and she lay back in bed, smiling faintly at the wall. On the side table was a vase of flowers from Frederick, who sat in a chair beside her bed, leaning forward, his head hung low.
She’d had a stroke. The permanent damage had been limited with how quickly the ambulance arrived, but because Frederick had left her alone with the soup she hadn’t wanted to eat—She’d told me as much, I shouldn’t have been so careless—she’d left her chair to secretly dispose of it. As such, she was standing as her brain fizzled, disrupting her balance. Her fall resulted in a fractured hip that would take surgery to fix, which also meant a period of painful rehabilitation. She wouldn’t understand her pain, she wouldn’t remember how or why it was happening, but because of his stupid mistake, she’d have to endure it.
Frederick leaned back in his chair and stared at the ceiling, running a hand slowly back through his hair. He looked over into Granny Madeline’s smiling face. The left half of her mouth hung limp. The doctors said that considering the circumstances, she’d been lucky. This was lucky?
What are you doing, Freddy? What the hell are you even doing?
The door opened, and Jan walked in holding two Styrofoam cups filled with coffee. Like Frederick, she hadn’t changed clothes since yesterday: she still wore the cheery pink blouse and those capris.
She stopped just inside the door, unsure, before moving to the chair beside Frederick. She offered one of the coffees, and he took it silently. He stared into its steamy surface. A small sip.
A minute passed before she spoke. “How long until she’s released?”
“It depends on the rehab,” Frederick said. “A few weeks. Maybe a month.”
She started rotating the coffee in her hands. He already knew what she was going to say. “Frederick.... These kinds of things will happen again, you know. She’s getting too old, the disease is worsening. You can’t take care of her anymore. You know that, don’t you?”
He brought the coffee cup to his mouth, said, “Yeah… I do,” and then took in another drink. A mouthful that burned. He forced himself to swallow it.
How could he have decided otherwise? The look in Granny Madeline’s eyes as the stroke ravaged her brain, as her hip splintered, had been unbearable. She’d looked straight at him, pleaded with him, begging with those eyes to save her from this pain and approaching death as she’d once saved him. She’d needed her savior, but at that moment he couldn’t fulfill the role. Who knew when that would happen again?
We do just fine! he’d said, and the thought of his past ignorance made him want to vomit.
Jan tentatively reached out and tried to put her hand on top of his, but he pulled away. She paused, then brought her hand back to her cup, tried speaking. “It… It’s the best choice, Frederick. I’m proud of you.”
He didn’t respond, his mind no longer concerned with Jan. Instead, he sat there and listened to the hymnal CD, silently hoping Granny Madeline would sing for him just one last time. He turned to her, waited, but the hymn never came. All she did was smile with half her mouth and return his gaze without a fleck of familiarity.
The Hymns of Granny Madeline
, by Inkfish7
- Michael Bjork