Shame and regret. Those are the feelings I have when I think back on those afternoons. This is always how it plays out in my mind’s eye:
I walk slowly down a dark hallway. It is late in the afternoon and no light makes its way into the hallway. The wood floor is painted a glossy black. Her door is at the end of the hallway. Sometimes I can hear a television on behind the door, other times silence.
I open the door. Inside my grandmother waits for death in an upholstered chair. She is pointed towards the television (which may or may not be on). Her eyes are glazed over and milky white, cataracts cloud her vision. The scent of urine is in the air. She is quietly talking to herself. She is alone. She is lonely. The feeling hangs in the air. Her only friends are on the television or in her head.
My heart rate increases. Something in my abdomen twists. My palms feel clammy. Sometimes I say hello. Sometimes she hears me and responds in kind. Sometimes I just quietly close the door and walk back out of the darkness.
She speaks only occasionally during the day with my mother who is her caretaker, but whom I think still has a difficult relationship with her so doesn’t spend more time then she needs to. In the evenings my father spends much of his night with his mother in mostly one sided conversation or watching television. While she was with us I could have been another voice. I could have been someone she could talk to about her life and about her pain.
I was a teenager scared of the age and death I could smell on her. I knew she was alone and lonely, and yet I did not have the courage to go in there and sit and talk with her. I could not face my fear of death.
Seven or eight years later she would die and I would cry at her funeral. Why? Because I knew I had lost something. I knew I had squandered so many opportunities to connect with this person. I had let my fear prevent me from doing that most human of things, being there for another human being, being there for a family member.
It had only been a couple years earlier when I had been alone. My friends severed their ties to me, made me a pariah. I knew what it was like to be lonely, but instead of easing that loneliness, I ran from it. It was as though I thought loneliness was a disease, and that I might catch it from her.
I still see myself treating some people I encounter in a similar way. If I get too close or talk too long to the homeless person I too might become homeless. If I get too close or talk too much to the disabled person I too might become disabled.
I am not proud of this part of my past nor of its affect on my present. One day I hope to face this fear and more regularly connect with all the human beings I encounter in my life.