Missing Her

Ruth, my Dibi, in the 1930s.

Ruth was a dancer, in pointe shoes and in Keds. As a girl, she danced under a local legend known for her rigorous ballet company. At Penn State, where she met Bernie, she headlined the thespian club dance troupe. That’s as far as Ruth’s stage act got, but her dancing, her love for it, only grew from there. On a trip to the grocery, she’d tour jeté down the sidewalk, then segue into Judy Garland’s “We’re Off to See the Wizard” skip. She’d shuffle-ball-change on the linoleum floor in the kitchen, then plié to announce that dinner was ready. Her toes were always just a little bit pointed, her pinkies just a little bit raised, delicate. She walked with grace and rhythm, with style. As an adult, dance wasn’t something Ruth used to do or something she’d wait to do at weddings. It was how she moved, how she expressed herself. It was at her core and it was part of her every day.

Until now.

Now, Ruth is in the late stages of Alzheimer’s.

She can’t talk or walk on her own. Each day, she sits in a chair, in a room, in a nursing home. The facility is technically called a wellness community, I guess. Residents are together during the day, not in beds or hooked up to tubes. The place has programming — exercise hours, game hours, movie hours — and a friendly, attentive staff. But, otherwise, it’s pretty quiet. There’s not much interaction among the “community” living there. For most of the day, my Dibi dozes off in her La-Z-Boy recliner, alone.

As Ruth’s granddaughter, it’s hard to see her like that. It hurts to watch a woman who was once so charming and elegant and alive, just lie under a black and gold fleece Steelers blanket, her feet propped up, motionless. Her arms at her side, still. Her eyes looking off somewhere, nowhere; vacant like an empty stage, like a dressing room after the final curtain call. I cry when I leave her there. I cry when I write about it.

But Bernie cries for her every day. What would that be like, I wonder? To know the woman you love, your wife for 68 years, is so close and so far away. The nursing home is a couple minutes’ drive from the house they built in 1951. Pop Pop still lives there, with the help of my aunt and uncle. Staying in his home is exactly what he wants, and he’s fortunate to be able to do it. He knows the place like the back of his hand, he has his routine. But without his Ruthie, he’s somewhat lost there, I think. As a member of the Greatest Generation, he’d never use the word depressed. He’d say down, maybe. Blue, perhaps. But I’ve heard him cry when I’m there. My bedroom is right above his, and I’ve heard sobs late at night. And he breaks down on the phone, more often to my mom, but sometimes to me. “It’s heartbreaking,” he’s said. “Just heartbreaking.”

There are moments, though, when little rays of Ruthie shine through. She’ll wiggle her hips or she’ll raise one eyebrow, playfully. She might pick up her orange juice glass with four fingers, her pinky finger back in business. In moments like these, we see the woman we miss and, even though it is heartbreaking, it’s comforting to know she’s still there.

She gave us one of these moments over the weekend. My mom was there visiting, and she took Pop Pop down to the home on Saturday. They ate lunch together on the glass-top table in the living room, the special place where they set her up when visitors come. It took a while to perk her up, but they did. She stayed awake for the meal and walked very well with my mom’s help. Before they left, Pop Pop hugged her goodbye. Usually she doesn’t respond, but this time, she kissed his arm, smelled him and then lit up with recognition, love. Pop Pop didn’t see it happen, sadly, but my mom was there to catch it and tell (and retell and retell) him all about it.

You know what else? Ruth is alive and tour jeté-ing in us — and she’ll always be. She’s there when I shuffle off to Buffalo in my office, just because. When I type with my pinkies up. (Wow, I just noticed I do that.) And she was there this past weekend, when my mom emailed: “Wish you were here to dance with me in the kitchen.” That’s so my Dibi. So Ruth. So us.