"Yesterday, Lionel couldn't make it to the bathroom fast enough," my mother told me. "I guess he made quite the mess."
I lingered on the mental image of this for a few seconds before I answered my mother.
"Why is he unable to make it to the bathroom in time?" I asked.
"I don't know. I guess he can't walk fast enough."
"He told Grandma that he should just kill himself."
The only man I've ever known as a grandfather has Alzheimer's. I spoke about his disease in the past, but so much has changed since then. The tipping point has dropped. We were fearful it would come with a loud bang, but instead it's been a never-ending, tortuous whisper.
Lionel recently moved out of my grandmother's home, into a hospital, then into an assisted living facility. We knew this day would come, but deep down maybe we thought it wouldn't. Lionel had been falling frequently, and 911 was called after one fall left him uncontrollably shaking. His blood sugar was imbalanced due to habitual ice cream eating.
"Lionel won't stop buying ice cream!" my grandmother told me 12 months ago. "My freezer is about to burst!" She would turn the phone away from her mouth and scold him for sneaking ice cream out of the freezer.
That was the beginning, and we had no idea what we were in for.
Once Lionel was in the hospital, we knew there was no turning back. The next step was an assisted living facility. How was Lionel going to take it? How was Grandma going to take it?
As my grandmother puts it, she's not sure she's ever loved Lionel, but she cares about him. You get used to having someone around for fifteen years. She comes from the generation that even if you don't love someone, you take care of them. Everyone before you.
"Maybe Lionel doesn't really have Alzheimer's", my grandmother will say to my mom. "Maybe I should still take care of him."
"You're 85-years-old, you'll die taking care of him before he does!"
My grandmother's life has been turned upside down. Needless to say, Lionel's life has been turned upside down, shaken violently and thrown against the wall. Lionel thinks he's staying in a hotel. He calls Grandma and tells her that he hates her for leaving him at this hotel and stuck with the bill.
Later he calls and tells her that he loves her and that if they get married, maybe everything will be okay. Sometimes he calls her and tells her he hopes she dies. It's her fault that he is that way.
"You know that's the disease talking," I say to my grandmother.
"Oh, I know!" she reassures me, but I don't think she believes it. Deep down she thinks Lionel is just pretending. Even when he puts his fist up to her chin and says, "You're a stupid bitch," she stands resilient.
When he was at the hospital, she visited every day, hours on end. Now he's in a home 40 miles away. She doesn't drive that far, so trips to see Lionel happen only once or twice a week. After visits, she becomes solemn.
"Lauren, it's so sad in there. There is a man there, he used to be a dentist. He screams and screams on end. These people..." she trails off. "They used to be somebody."
Watching Lionel unravel has left my grandmother facing her mortality. A strikingly independent and vivacious woman her entire life, for the first time she's feeling her age. She's bored and she's frustrated. Her friends have died, her partner is losing his mind and she no longer has control of her body. She suffers from osteoporosis in the spine and standing for long periods of time can be painful.
When I speak to her about the future, sometimes she's optimistic, other times she doesn't want to talk about it. It's too much for her.
"I'm old," she tells me. "For the first time, I feel old."
My other grandmother, who I am not as close to, is 93-years-old. Also a strong and independent woman, her body has finally begun shutting down. She can no longer live on her own and she becomes disoriented frequently due to poor circulation.
She is currently living with my uncle and my father visits her often. Sometimes she will reintroduce her two boys to one another. Other times she will speak with the clarity and precision of a woman half her age. As she and my father took an afternoon stroll on a recent visit, she grabbed my father's hand, turned to him and said, "Are you ready for this, son?"
My father was speechless.
"I've made my peace, and I'm ready," she told him.
We all get old. Every single one of us. None of us are immune to it unless we die young.
I can cry, I can empathize and I can lie awake at night wondering what my grandmother and Lionel are going through, but I am not them.
We have such a detachment from getting old, until one day, it's there.