For my grandmother, who has Alzheimer’s, food is memory and connection. Now I’m not allowed to cook for her—or even visit.
Flickr/Jo Zimny Photos
I am plagued by the dual fears that my grandmother will either contract a deadly disease or that, on the other side of Covid-19, she won’t know me anymore.
I started cooking for my grandmother when simpler forms of communication failed. At 83, she has dulled to a vague, affable sweetness—easygoing, slack-smiled, forever dazed: the hallmarks of many Alzheimer’s patients. I had moved back to Buffalo, New York, from Washington, D.C., in the hopes of helping care for her. But I learned quickly the arrogance, or naivete, of that decision. My proximity alone could not make her well. Instead, I brought her cut-out cookies, scones, lattes, soups, roast beef sandwiches, homemade meatballs—an ad hoc language that evolved, over time, into a Wednesday night ritual.
Every week after work, I drive—that is, I drove—30 minutes from my office to my grandmother’s nursing home. I warm a Pyrex bowl in their commercial microwave, checking every 30 seconds to make sure it’s not too hot. (Inevitably, it is.) Then I sit with my grandmother, who I call Mama, in a fluorescent communal room noisy, at all hours, with the sobbing and singing of its residents and the discordant beep of their unanswered alarms.
She takes tiny, tremulous forkfuls, her hands quaking with arthritis. The aides say she eats slowest of all their residents. Beans fall back to the soup bowl. Flecks of sauce shake from her fork.
But when she does get a mouthful, without fail: “Caitlin Elizabeth—I didn’t know you could cook!”
In the hands of an 83-year-old woman, a homemade bowl of soup is now—potentially and terrifyingly—a biohazard.
We don’t do this anymore, of course: a homemade bowl of soup, in the hands of a sickly 83-year-old woman, is now—potentially and terrifyingly—a biohazard. So on each of the three Wednesdays since coronavirus forced New York State nursing homes to close to visitors, I’ve reverted to the old, failed forms of communication. I sent several postcards, signed with both my name and our relationship, in case that knowledge unsticks. I called the nurses’ station to speak to her, but the phone rang and rang into the clamor of that bright communal room, and no one ever answered it.
These are frightening times. As I write this, our county has test-confirmed almost 1,000 Covid-19 cases, and likely harbors thousands more. I am plagued by the dual fears that my grandmother will either contract a deadly disease or that, on the other side, she won’t know me anymore.
Just last month, arriving too late for dinner, I brought her two of the crumbly peanut butter cookies she’ll sometimes eat by the handful. Long before the Alzheimer’s set in, when she still lived on her own, Mama loved peanut butter to such a degree she’d spoon it straight from the jar while watching television.
But when I took off my coat and gave her the cookies, Mama seemed agitated. She had been in her room, half-reclined, dressed for bed, and she strained to sit upright to take them.
I’ve reverted to the old, failed forms of communication: postcards, signed with both my name and our relationship, in case that knowledge unsticks.
“Who are you?” She demanded, finally. “What are you doing in my room?”
“It’s Caitlin,” I said. “Your granddaughter. Caitlin. Don’t look so worried. I brought you food.”
One by one I took framed photos from her walls, and presented them to her as proof: the two of us at my bridal shower, my high school graduation picture. I had known this moment would come at some point, but there’s still no preparing for your own erasure. That feeling still shadows me, flashes in dark moments—especially when I see news of an outbreak at a nursing home.
That night, at least, the photos worked: Mama once again remembered who I was. Right away, she became cranky, impatient that we forget the incident.
“Didn’t you say something about cookies?” She asked. “Aren’t you going to have one?”
And then, in the definitive tone of someone changing the subject: “Caitlin, these cookies are excellent.”