By the time she aged well into her twenties, my mother had grown too large for that modest brick colonial and soon mounted a quest for adulthood. She became the first in her family to earn a college degree (which she afforded with her own wallet), she worked through countless odd jobs until she secured her title as a Supreme Court clerk, and she even managed to raise two daughters while wrangling my calamity. In watching her face every kind of hardship over the years, I’ve come to admire my mother for this reason—she is a warrior.
While she has forged a foundation for her growing family, my mother still cherishes the time she spent with her father over the years, carrying his beloved cackle in her mind. When asked about her fondest memories of my grandfather, my mother immediately recalls his antics on the night of her wedding. She caught him grooving and gliding to disco music on the dance-floor, whisking almost every female guest off her feet.
“He was a dancing fool!” she chimes with an incredulous chuckle. “I had never seen him act that crazy before.”
She kids that he was probably excited to get rid of his daughter. Though her weary hazel eyes, vacant as they whirl into a fit of nostalgia, suggest more.
Before she toddled out of the venue in her puffed lace dress that night, my mother remembers how her father ambled towards her, amidst hundreds of clamoring guests to bid her farewell. She noticed the way his bristly eyebrows knitted together as his eyes welled with tears.
“You know how I feel,” she simply mutters, emulating his shaky tone. “I’m your father and I will always be there for you.”
I can hear my mother echo his words with a snivel, which helps me realize that she rarely heard this kind of sentiment from her father. I believe my mother when she insists that she had always felt close to her father growing up, despite how seldom he expressed such warmth. I suppose her warrior skin must have grown with time, throbbing to thrive on her father’s pride and affection.
When she steadies her voice to budge out another answer, my mother concedes that she must now harbor memories, like this one, since he can no longer express those feelings.
“It’s like I’ve been mourning Grandpa for the past three years,” she murmurs, shirking the hurt in her words with downcast eyes. “The way I see it, he’s already gone.”
If I were to have asked my grandfather about that public dinner outburst years later, he most likely could not have told me where we were, what we ate or even who we were. He would have just stared at me vacantly with tired eyes. Though I would have probably repeated myself a few times and clearly enunciated in a raised voice so he could listen with his hearing aid, I know that he would have just resorted to shrugging his shoulders and staring back into space, listless and irritated.
In the past three years, as dementia clawed through his brain, I’ve watched my grandfather decline into an idle, sedated husk of a man. When I first heard the news about his diagnosis from my mother, I struggled to process her bleak report. Sure, I had heard tragic tales about elderly relatives in other families grappling with a decaying memory as a result of this syndrome—though I hadn’t really believed that my family would be dealt such a faltering, emaciated hand. While the term “dementia” may directly translate to the Latin word for “madness,” I refuse to believe that my grandfather was driven insane by its symptoms. Though I admit, he didn’t seem to possess his own self as he reached its seventh and most crippling stage.
As the result of his cognitive decline in his last few years, my grandfather had to endure the touch of another human scrubbing his back in the bathtub and wrangling his body into an adult diaper, since he could no longer perform his daily routine. He often lashed out at his wife or his aide when they struggled to haul his inert, gaunt frame from his bed into a wheelchair everyday. If he tried to open his mouth and communicate, he could only groan in muted babble or sometimes bray out with incoherent exclamations. In those last few months, I also learned that my grandfather had become prone to a phenomenon known as “sundowning,” in which dementia patients sleep during daylight hours but later become restless and confused at night. According to most psychological studies, these combined factors of weight loss, fatigue, and agitation usually manifest as a depressive disorder in most dementia patients.
I didn’t really need a psychologist telling me what I clearly saw: he didn’t even cackle anymore. While his brittle bones continued to age well into his eighties, I noticed how his spirit diminished as if he was retreating to the beginning rather than braving the end. I couldn’t really tell what was worse.
Cut to the final scene of Lucy’s mayhem in the candy factory—the pinnacle of her sugared nightmare. The camera fades into the same dismal workroom set, though this time it features a long conveyor belt stretching from one side of the stage to the other. Lucy and Ethel are herded into this room like before, but the duo now fixes their tense gaze on the contraption.
The camera focuses on Lucy as she ricochets her twitchy eyes up and down the wide expanse of the belt, clearly dreading its automated gears and levers. With a knitted brow, Lucy fears that this moment may be her last chance to prove her competency in the working world. She doesn’t seem to have much faith.
The supervisor breaks Lucy’s anxious stupor as she begins to give more instructions. “Now, the candy will pass by on this conveyor belt and continue into the next room, where the girls will pack it,” she orders in a much more stringent tone than before. “Your job is to take each piece of candy and wrap it in one of these papers and put it back on the belt. You understand?”
Lucy and Ethel answer with a weary reply, “Yes sir—uh, yes ma’am!” before the audience rumbles with a few chuckles. The viewers don’t seem to have much hope for the calamity twins either.
“Alright, girls. This is your last chance.” The supervisor seethes with a twinge of exhaustion. “If one piece of candy gets past you and into the packaging room unwrapped—you’re fired.”
She bellows into the next room for the operator to start the conveyor belt. Lucy and Ethel suddenly jerk upwards in fright and pluck wrappers from the countertop. When chocolates slowly start to tread across the belt, Lucy and Ethel lurch closer with their hands hovering above the incoming stock. They snatch these candies from the belt, crackle their wrappers around each piece in a tizzy, thud them back onto the belt and watch for the next one.
Once they settle into a productive pace, Lucy and Ethel find themselves wrapping at a greater frequency. The belt picks up speed and bare chocolates quickly scurry past. Raucous laughter pounds against the screen as the audience indulges in what sounds like a fit of schadenfreude. The camera zeros in on Lucy’s grimace as she watches her gainful employment slide away from her grasp, one sweet at a time.
“I think we’re fighting a losing battle!” Lucy hollers over to Ethel above vindictive hysterics. She looks to her right side to find Ethel already shoving those pesky candies in her mouth so they don’t pass into the next room.
As the laughter reverberates through the chaos, Lucy proceeds to hastily wrench her hands around each candy, twisting its wrapper with tense shoulders. But then, the conveyor belt stops. The frazzled women look at each other in pure terror and start to grab any sugary remains from the belt, collecting them in their oversized caps and even larger mouths.
When the supervisor returns onstage to find not a single candy left, she surveys the duo with pleased astonishment while they sit upright, stuffed with their secret of failure.
“Well, fine. You’re doing splendidly,” the supervisor smugly remarks. She then shrieks to the operator offstage, “Speeeeeeed it up a little!”
Lucy and Ethel bug out their tired eyes in shock and resume their work. The scene fades out.
In spite of my yearning to help care for my grandfather in his last months, I could only send recycled words of solace to my mother over the phone while six hours away at college. When I was available at home, I made sure to visit my grandparents so that we could catch up. Essentially, I tried to distract them from his sickness with my spritely energy.
One night last January, I offered to drive over to their cramped apartment, which is five minutes away in a neighboring town. My mother often assumed the role of caregiver when his aide wasn’t on duty, so I wanted to spare her for one night. Besides, I thought I could handle it—I had just turned twenty-one after all.
Once I briskly knocked on their apartment door, I waited for a minute or two until I heard my grandmother jingling its chain lock and then opening the door to greet me.
“Oh, hi, Pussycat,” she said in a rather subdued tone. “Come on in.” As I stepped through the doorway, I immediately noticed my grandfather, sitting hunched against a reclined bed loaned by the local hospital. His gaze was glazed over onto the television set.
“How’s he doing?”
“Meh, he’s not getting any worse but not getting any better either.” My grandmother shrugged her gaunt shoulders with exhausted indifference. As much as I imagined that she wanted to assist her husband in every possible way, I knew that her slight, shrunken frame couldn’t handle the physical strain.
I headed over to the foot of his bed and tried to focus his attention on the genial wave of my hand. My grandmother then scurried closer to his bedside and slapped him repeatedly on the shoulder until his eyes found her face.
“Do you know who is here to visit you?” she hollered into his ear. It was one of the many brain puzzles we quizzed him with so we could gauge his condition. “Do you know who this is?”
When he heeded her questions with a meek “huh,” my grandmother repeated herself, but much louder this time. I remember when they used to bicker like Fred and Ethel. Now, it just seemed like she was screaming at him. I watched my grandfather crane his neck to stare in my direction and then slowly turn back to her with a response.
“Uh, Cheryl,” he gurgled out as his lip started to quiver from too much work. Cheryl is my mother’s name.
While I had tried to prepare myself for this day, I couldn’t stop the shock that shuddered through my veins once I felt this reality of his syndrome. My grandfather had become the dementia patient.
As I tried to shake off those broken nerves, I noticed my grandfather swiftly tack his fingers onto his knobby calves and start scratching into his skin with his fingernails. His legs were lacerated with streaks of dried blood.
“When did this start?” I asked my grandmother as I struggled to steady my faltering voice, not looking away from his damage.
“Oh, that? He’s been doing that for a while now,” she replied. “I’m not really sure why.”
My mother told me months later that my grandfather had contracted scabies, or parasites inside the skin that are usually festering under unwashed linens. She assumed that his previous two-month stint in a nearby rehabilitation facility might have caused the infection.
Watching my grandfather cringe as he tried to scrape the pain out of his skin, I began to question. I might have convinced myself that I could nurture him since I had reached an adult age, but I will always be Lucy. No matter how hard I would try to deliver the tender care and comfort he desperately needed, I knew that I might topple onto his frail body after catching my foot on the bed or I’d inflame his abraded skin while trying to warmly touch his knee. This calamity can’t be trusted to watch over someone so delicate. It would be a child taking care of another child—I would easily make his condition worse.
Working toward her starring role on I Love Lucy, Lucille Ball fought tooth and nail for twenty years to rise out of amateur films so that she could become a slapstick queen. She might have endured plenty of hardships on the way—the deaths of her father and uncle, the frequent absence of an unfaithful husband—but she made sure that she fumbled into televised greatness.
With each new episode in the series, Ball strove to perfect every pratfall or wacky face. Once the cameras started rolling, Lucille would bawl like a glorified lady child until audiences broke into hysterics from her shenanigans. When it seemed like Lucy would never overcome her calamity, Ball was right behind her to control the chaos.
After watching countless episodes of Lucy over the years, I realized that such mayhem could foster a hilarious blessing if steered in the right way. I could still comfort my grandfather with a boundless spirit as long as I focused that energy on treating his condition. If Lucy could tackle the responsibility of amusing others, then I sure as hell could for the sake of my family. That’s the truth to growing up—accepting that life needs more laughter.
When my grandfather finally stopped scratching his red-slathered legs, I tiptoed closer to his left bedside and picked up a tube of prescribed ointment and a washcloth from the night table. Once I started to cleanse his wounds with hot water and massaged them with cool gel, I looked over to catch the tense wrinkles ease in my grandfather’s face while he slowly closed his eyes to slumber.
I found my grandmother watching the film Hope Springs on their small, gleaming HD television set. In this particular scene, Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones sit in a movie theatre as an elderly couple, bickering about one potential way to spice up their date.
“What’s going on?” my grandmother asked in a whisper of innocence.
In this moment, I heard canned laughter echoing inside my head. It would be too awkward, so instead I laughed it off with a loud chortle until she giggled in return.
Emily Webb graduated from SUNY Geneseo in 2013 with a Bachelor’s degree in English (Creative Writing) and French. She hails from Oceanside, New York and now works as a roving reporter for the Long Island Herald. She has published poems in Opus and was named Honorable Mention for the Mary A. Thomas Award in Poetry. She would choose to sip tea with Sylvia Plath so that she could learn how to truly love like a mad girl