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As We Begin, So Do We End

by Maureen Ehlbeck

Today as I changed my baby daughter's diaper, a vision of her as an old woman flashed into my mind. I thought of her in a nursing home, wearing adult diapers, with someone less loving of her than I wiping her. I so wish I could be the one to take care of her then, to change her elderly diaper with the same tenderness I change it now.

Face Sculpture by Ragen Mendenhall
Face Sculpture
by Ragen Mendenhall
I'm reminded how we all revert to a more childish state when we get very old. As with my baby, we all start off with simple needs, and we end up the same way when we're older, without the benefit of baby softness.

I saw this up close on a recent trip to the beach. My 82-year-old grandfather rented a place in Destin, Florida, because he's dying of lung cancer and wanted us all to be together.

When my mother first escorted him into our place, I noticed how the cancer was eating away. Always large, both in size and personality, he now looks younger and frailer. I question him, trying to know him better before he dies. He talks incessantly about my grandmother, who has Alzheimer's disease. She lives in an intensive care home, and he's down the street in a retirement apartment facility.

The next day, we visit Grandma. She's not in her room when we get there, so I look for the doll I'd heard about. Grandma had gotten jealous of another woman's doll, so my uncle bought her a Cabbage Patch imitation, which is propped in the chair next to her bed.

Then I hear Grandma walking toward us accompanied by a brightly chattering nurse who says, "Look who's here!"

"It's my husband!" Grandma enthuses. "And Patsy!"

I tear up. She hasn't called my mother Patsy since she was a little girl. And my grandfather smiles widely. "She knows who I am!"

She looks the same, with the exception of some much-needed weight. She wears an adult diaper, which makes her rear end soft and curvy. As I hug her, she prattles on. Our group walks outside to the back terrace to sit beneath a flower-covered arbor.

Grandpa puts his arm around Grandma, who snuggles into him. Mom questions Grandma, trying to get some lucidity. It's hard to watch the hope Mom wears on her face as she looks for some of the affection she rarely received while growing up. But Alzheimer's has given one gift: It has also robbed Grandma of her bitterness. What remains is a happy, warm toddler. I imagine that this lightness was part of her personality before life hurt her.

Married in the late 1930s, my mother's parents are Irene and Bob. My mom, Patricia, is the oldest of their three children. As a young man, Grandpa stood 6'2" with blonde curls and sea blue eyes. The product of a critical and violent father, he later carried these traits himself. But as a young man, starting out life with Irene in Dayton, Ohio, he was an affectionate optimist. Irene was a petite 5'2", with a square jaw and a boisterous cackle for a laugh. Her father died of alcoholism on the streets of Dayton, but she idolized him and made little of this. She once told me how she snuck off to meet him to give him food.

As with most couples, Bob and Irene were opposites: she dreamed of being an actress, but she was a homebody who later developed a phobia about leaving the house at all; he was a restless, impatient, and curious young man who once ran away from home and persuaded a pilot to take him for a ride. She won their battle of wills. They settled in Dayton, down the street from her six brothers and sisters and their families.

In some ways it was an ideal life: playing cards with the family, children popping in and out of their aunts' and uncles' homes, pot roast dinners, homegrown tomatoes, and the safety of Midwestern life pre-World War II. Bob became an engineer for General Motors, and Irene, a homemaker.

But ill health plagued Bob, first with tuberculosis, and later with heart problems which periodically left him out of work with financial difficulties. There were two more children, Diana and Mike. But their ideal start was tainted; the ghosts of their pasts were now playing out in their present. She was a critical, self-absorbed mother who slathered love on her siblings and her mother; yet she was often frugally loving with her own children. He was bound by ill health and the limitations imposed by a wife who didn't want to travel.

He was 4-F during the second world war, so he was spared that adventure and possible ordeal, and helped the cause from his auto plant. Their children grew up and moved far away. They stayed in Dayton until they moved to Florida to move into retirement facilities, because my grandfather could no longer physically take care of Grandma, who was getting sicker and sicker.

We start to wind up our visit. In the recreation area, we see eight curled-up women seated in wheelchairs or propped up on a couch. The TV is on. A few peer at the screen, attracted by the noise and the movement, but not knowing what they see.

One woman pulls at my heart. She's crying in a high-pitched wail, almost a scream. Her spotted hands are all deformed, crooked fingers and swollen knuckles, and she wrings them round and round. It touches Mom too, perhaps because she also has arthritis. She holds the woman's hands in hers.

Who is she? Do her children and grandchildren visit her? Was she a mother? Where is she from?

In fascination, I watch my grandmother, the most agile and coherent of the bunch, as she totters from woman to woman, peering into their faces and patting their cheeks. She talks gibberish to them, and a few look at her, but mostly they drool and moan and stare vacantly. She's the cheerleader of the bunch--a nice memory to have.

Grandpa motions to Mom and me that it's a good time to leave.

Back at his tiny apartment, he reminisces.

"It was a beautiful life."

"I admit we had problems, everybody does. But it was a beautiful life."

I don't know if I'll see my grandparents again. I don't know how much time they have left. But I got to view a marriage, often a troubled one, at the end of its cycle. I also got to see two lives at the end of their cycles.

Because I grew up far away, I could view their lives in a detached way; seeing that circumstances caused them to be the way they were.

I received a powerful gift during that visit. I saw lifelong bitterness stripped away like old paint, with Pure Love lying below.

We all have layers of frustrated dreams, childhood wounds, death, illness, and the other forces that life levels at us. But we also have the layers of babies born, of hopeful marriages, and of simple pleasures such as morning coffee on a cool spring day.

We will all wrinkle and get ill and die. And as this process takes place, our lives reverse. We regain some of the clarity and the pureness that we had as small children, as well as the need to be cared for. As we end, so did we once begin.


Maureen Maloney Ehlbeck is a mother, a wife and a freelance writer. When not chasing her two children, and all that that involves, she writes nonfiction essays and articles, as well as proofreads for design firms. She lives in Atlanta, Georgia, with her husband Bob, and her children, Nicholas and Olivia, and their blue tick hound, Bonnie Blue.


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