بحبك قد الملح

13 March 2012 § Leave a comment

A king with three beautiful daughters asks them how much they love their father.

The eldest says, “I love you as bright as the sunshine.”
The second daughter says, “I love you as wide as the ocean.”
The youngest says, “Oh father, I love you as meat loves salt.”

The father, not satisfied with the youngest daughter’s reply has her thrown out of the palace. But one of the palace servants, an old woman, decides to keep her.

Months later, the king announces a banquet to be held in the palace. Learning of this, the youngest daughter requests that the old woman sees to it that no salt is placed in the meat that will be served at the banquet. The old woman has this done, and when the meat was served, the guests complained greatly about the way it tasted. The young daughter then appeared before her father. She explained to him that as meat is tasteless without salt, so too is her life without her father’s love. From that day she was once again treated like a princess.

***

On the same day that I attended the wonderful and inspiring “Laha” event honoring Egyptian women, I lost one of the greatest Egyptian women I have ever known. On Saturday, March 10th, we lost my grandmother, Soaad, or as we all called her “mama nena”. We lost the woman who used to tell us, when we asked her how much she loved us, “Bahebik 2ad el malh.” (I love you as much as salt.)

She was everything a woman, a person should be. She was strong, she was kind, she was clever and wise. She was generous and jolly. She was always on your side. She made a mean “bram bil lahma“. She was a mediator, but watch out if you messed with one of her own. She made everything better. Her home was a harbor for so many over the years. And even in her final years when she could barely speak or move, she was calm and she was peace.

My grandmother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 2005. We had started to notice some odd lapses in her behavior which started with an incident in her garden where she fell and broke her arm and it took months to heal. She kept forgetting why she had the cast on. Kept asking when she could get it off. Things steadily deteriorated from there and eventually a neurologist confirmed what most of us had already realized – she was in the first stage of Alzheimer’s.

My mother, God bless her, immediately set about reading everything she could about the disease printing out reams of articles from the internet, then translating the really relevant bits for her siblings. Initially, my grandmother lived in her home with my uncle and his family, but her four daughters wanted to take part in her care so eventually she would spend a few months at the homes of each of her daughters. At some point in 2006 – when the disease became less about her forgetfulness and more about her heightened stage of agitation, her insomnia and our complete emotional depletion in the face of the unexpected transformation of my jolly, loving, kind grandmother into an irritable, accusatory and mistrustful woman – my grandmother moved in with us. Our home was the best place to take care of her as we had the room and we had the manpower and it was very close to the hospital that my uncle manages.

Eventually though my grandmother moved back to her home, with her son, and in the summer of 2006 as the Israeli assault on southern Lebanon raged and I started to fall in love with PG (though it would be a very very long time before I would recognize that), my grandmother was admitted to the hospital when she stopped being able to swallow any food and had to have a feeding tube inserted directly into her stomach.

These are the things that popular media never tells us about Alzheimer’s and dementia – the forgetting is the easiest part. The aggression, the agitation, the desperation, the slow but steady shutting down of the body’s organs, the loss of the person you loved so dearly years before you lose them physically – these are the worst parts of Alzheimer’s.  These are why the family and loved ones of Alzheimer’s patients experience what is called prolonged bereavement.

But the last two years of my grandmother’s life were some of the best of her illness. We had figured out how to manage her moods with medication. We had a feeding system for her. We had created a hospice space in the home where she’d spent the last 30 odd years of her life.

One of my favorite and most endearing recent memories of PG occurred soon after we were engaged and he eagerly helped me make creme caramel for my grandmother. The easy texture, plus the protein from the eggs, calcium from the milk, and the sugar were all good things for her. And though she wasn’t supposed to eat through her mouth anymore, sometimes my mother would sneak her small spoonfuls, taking pleasure in the delighted look in my grandmother’s eyes as she remembered the long lost taste of food. PG never got to meet my grandmother, but I told her when we got engaged, when we got married the first time, and the second time, and I like to think that when she squeezed my hand (an action that had become more or less involuntary by that point) she was really giving us her blessing.

Though in those last two years, my grandmother was completely bedridden and barely spoke, she still had a strong presence in our lives. Her room, where the Quran radio transmission continuously played softly in the background, became a place of solace for us all. My mother used to say she saved up all her stress from the week for her two-day caretaking shift at her mother’s. In the calm of that room my mother would lose herself in caring for her mother and mulling over the problems of the day. She would get home from there physically exhausted but mentally prepared for the week ahead.

In the last month my grandmother came down with pneumonia, and my uncle and his siblings made the difficult decision not to risk moving her to the hospital. They did all they could for her in those last weeks – administering antibiotics and cold compresses, manually suctioning the fluid from her lungs, and so on. On Thursday, 8 March, during my mother’s shift she finally was able to sleep through the night for the first time in weeks. My mother thought the worst was over. By Saturday, she was gone. My uncle, the doctor, realizing that things were taking a turn for the worst called his sisters and told them to come. I rushed to my parents’ house from the Opera House and then my mother, sister and I piled into the car to go to my grandmother’s. My uncle called exactly 3 minutes before we pulled up to her house to tell us she had gone. When we arrived we joined my aunts and cousins around her bed, heads bowed in prayers and tears, saying goodbye to our last living grandparent. Saying goodbye to the woman we loved as much as salt.

In the days since she passed I have come to the calm realization that I do not feel sorrow for our loss as much as I feel gratitude that she was ours, that we got her for as long as we did. Alhamdullilah.

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