Over the weekend I went to visit my grandmother in her nursing home. I know I should go more often and I probably would if 9pm were an acceptable time to visit an old person. As it stands, having to wake up an hour early to visit her before I head to work is just difficult enough that not doing it makes me feel the exact amount of terrible required to deem myself a victim of circumstance (“Getting up is so hard, I can’ breathe…blah, blah, blah”) instead of a monster.
And nursing homes are strange places. There’s a dreamlike quality to them, with people so close to death that they already make sounds like ghosts. They reach for you as you walk by, hoping their slow, off-key melody will convince you to unbind them from this place and let them be free again, which is heartbreaking right up to the point that they call you “a fucking asshole” for leaving them behind.
With all that in mind, getting up early to see her on Saturday made me feel like I was going to win a Nobel Prize. Granted, I didn’t have to work on Saturday—the only real deadline I had to hit was to drive out to my fiancee’s at some point—but the nursing home was a whole 15 minutes out of my way. Driving that 15 minutes makes me the fucking best.
I bounced through the nursing home, already thinking about what I was going to say when Time Magazine honored me as Man of the Year, and found Gram in the recreation area, sitting on one end of a horseshoe formation of old people. I went in—hoping I wasn’t interrupting a very sad game of Duck, Duck, Goose—and made my approach, waiting for Gram to recognize me. It’s taken longer lately and some faces have completely fallen away for her—I spent most of our Mother’s Day visit trying to explain that my father was not her father, proving that I think I’m so great at talking that I can restore brain function in dementia patients—but I was sure she’d remember me. As stated above, I’m the fucking best.
The spark of recognition never lit on her face, so I put my arm around her and said “It’s Jason”, assuming that using the extra syllable in my name would make me a shoo-in for a Presidential Medal of Freedom. But instead of hearing, “Hey, it’s me, Jason!” she heard “It’s Jason…”
“OH MY GOD! OH NO! HE DIED?” she said, as tears streamed down her face and she began to shake. She tried to stand up—which is a very bad idea for her—and let out a howl.
“Why didn’t they tell me?!? NOOOOO!”
The nice lady in charge got me some tissues to mop up my grandmother’s tears, then got her acoustic guitar and led the rest of the room in a rousing rendition of “You Are My Sunshine” while I tried to convince my grandmother that I wasn’t dead.
Between bouts of shaking sadness, my grandmother looked at me and said “It will be okay. I won’t be mad if you just tell me the truth.” Then a growing group of octogenarians sang a round of “Row, Row, Row Your Boat.”
“You kind of look like Jason,” she said. “But I know he’s gone.”
“No, he’s me. I’m right here, I’m Jason.”
“No, if Jason was here he’d be punching me around.” she said.
“What? I never punched you.”
“No, but he’d be telling me what to do and yelling,” she laughed.
It’s true, I’ve been more patient since her 30/70 mix of cunning and crazy spilled over into 200 proof dementia, but I did not think her most treasured memories of me are the time I tried to teach her how to buckle her seat belt (“Just put the buckle in the thing with the giant red button. Nope, that’s a Pepsi bottle.”) or the half-hour I spent explaining that putting the empty Slim Jim wrappers back in the can wasn’t a viable way of convincing me she didn’t eat all the Slim Jims (“I’m not mad that you ate them, I just need you to understand that I can tell these wrappers are empty”).
But I thought about it a little bit. She’s been in the home for three years now. I did everything I could to keep her out of there, but the whole process took a lot out of me. It changed me a lot. Maybe I seemed like different person to her because I am a different person. The Jason she knew is dead. Maybe she deserved to cry about that.
For those playing along at home, this is the point where my grandmother made me believe that I might be an impostor.
Who was I to judge if I was an impostor or not?I tried showing her my license, but that’s exactly what an impostor would do. If I really was some sort of Jason replacement unit, wouldn’t I be programmed to believe I was the real thing?
Then she started crying again and said “Why didn’t they just tell me? Oh God, I’m sorry. Why did you take him? I’ll go to church every day, I promise!”
That’s when I snapped out of it. Even if I am an impostor, she must have been crying about a completely different Jason, because no Jason she ever knew would encourage that.
In the end, I told her I’d have Jason give her a call, because I just read Phantoms in the Brain and I learned that sometimes patients with Capgras syndrome—the belief that your close family has been replace by impostors—recognize voices when they are detached from faces. I brought it up to a member of the staff, but she (rightfully) looked at me in the way you look at someone who’s read a book and now thinks they are King of Neuroscience. To her credit, I haven’t actually called to put my theory to the test, in fear that my “Cystic Fibrosis” is just a cover story for the shortened life spans of the impostors down at the clone farm.
Or maybe I died years ago and this is just gas escaping from the body.