From time to time I will post stories that I have written about my grandmother, Betty Collura. I lived with her for about 14 months in 2006-2007, and it was during this time that she started showing the early signs of Alzheimer’s disease. It was an interesting time with many significant ups and downs, but I have a unique story to tell for almost every single day.
One night after being sent home sick from work, chugging some liquid Tylenol straight out of the bottle and going to bed with an extremely sore throat, I awakened in the pitch black from a pain so sharp I couldn’t even pretend it was part of my dream. Groggy and disoriented, I attempted to inhale a deep breath and swallow. The breath barely went in and the swallow felt like tiny new razorblades scratching against my throat. I put my hands up to my neck to discover it was so swollen that it protruded outward, resembling a huge double chin. I tried swallowing again and was left dizzy from the agonizing pain. I began to panic.
My mind pondered what appeared to be my only three options: I could continue silently lying on my back and risk dying a slow, lonely death; I could dial 911 and seek medical assistance; or call my mother and have her come take care of me. The third option seemed the most logical and comforting, but when I went to dial her number I felt a bit guilty. A 5:30 a.m. wake-up call was surely going to startle her, and there wasn’t going to be much she could do for me anyway. She could bring me more of the Tylenol that wasn’t working and keep me company while I whined until the doctor’s office opened at 8 a.m., but that was about it. I knew she’d be waking up in another hour or so and coming over to eat breakfast with my Grandma like she did almost every day, so I figured I might as well just let her start her day peacefully. “As soon as she gets here, I’ll have her drive me to the doctor,” I told myself.
I wanted to walk to the kitchen and chug some Tylenol even though it had already proved to be useless, but getting up sounded like a painful mission. Just moving my inflated neck slightly to the right or left was torturous. I lay very still on my back, counting the minutes until sunrise and when my mother would arrive. My throat throbbed so hard I thought the veins behind my ears were going to rupture. With each throb came a pumping sound- my blood trying to push through the narrow veins past all that swelling, I guessed. Over the pumping sound I thought I heard light footsteps outside my closed bedroom door. The sound of the washing machine slowly being pried open confirmed it.
“Grandmaaaaa,” I croaked as loud as I could. I hoped for the miracle that she was wearing her hearing aids and that they were properly turned on for once.
My prayers were answered; a few seconds later my door opened and she poked her head inside.
“Anybody in here?” she called into the darkness.
“Grandma! It’s Casey! Come over here to the bed!”
As she opened the door all the way the blinding light from the hallway poured in. She made her way over to my bed and sat on the edge.
“I was just doing some laundry. It’s early, right? What are you doing up at this hour?” she asked.
I can’t sleep because my throat hurts so much, Grandma. Feel how swollen it is.” I instructed.
I took her hand and guided it to the big double-chin growing out of my neck. She nodded as she ran her hands over it.
“I remember when I was young, my mother would make us her special hot tea whenever we had a sore throat,” she reminisced. “She’d use lemon, apple cider vinegar, cayenne and lots of honey. It always made me and my brothers feel better. Much better than any of those medicines they use today.”
I explained to her how the Tylenol had not worked at all for me and how I was just waiting for my mom to arrive so I could see the doctor. My grandma sat and kept me company, rubbing my head and chattering on and on about her mother’s tea and other childhood adventures of growing up as a first-generation American in a Swedish immigrant family.
She told me how her family would listen to stories on the radio before they owned a television and it would help her parents with their English. She explained how my great-grandmother, who was dead long before I was born, was hooked on her radio soap operas and would spend most afternoons listening to them. “Ma Perkins- that was her favorite,” my grandma told me. “My mother would laugh and cry all day listening to that show.”
My grandma’s thoughts were a bit scattered and she didn’t stay on any subject for very long, but at times her memory was sharp. For an Alzheimer’s patient who sometimes did not remember how to spell her own name (or what it was for that matter), I was amazed at how well she still recalled vivid memories from over seven decades ago. That’s the thing with my grandma: one moment she’s so perceptive and will say something so profound, and the next moment she’ll swear my deceased grandfather just clogged the toilet (it’s never her that clogs it).
When we heard the sound of my mom’s Mini Cooper pull up in the driveway about an hour later, she stood up to go unlock the front door. As my mom stepped inside I heard them talking to each other in the hallway. My grandma was filling her in on what was happening.
“The girl in there is very sick. I’ve been with her all night,” I heard her say.
“Really? What’s wrong with Casey?” my mom asked.
I think she said her throat, but I’m not really sure. She’s very sick and I’m worried. Do her parents live nearby?”
There was silence for a moment and then I heard my mother’s voice again.
“Mom, I am Casey’s mother. She is your granddaughter,” she started to explain for probably the eightieth time.
I pictured the blank look on my grandma’s face as she listened and as miserable as I was, I managed to let out a small, painful laugh through my sore, swollen throat. She might not remember exactly who I was or why I was in her house, but at least she still cared about me.