Mother’s Day of 2010 found us at the hospital. In the late morning, we had stopped by my mom’s house to visit with her and her mother before heading to the coast for a day of fun in the sun. When I got to the front door, my mom came out with a scared look on her face. “She keeps falling and she doesn’t make any sense when she talks,” she said, referring to my 95-year-old grandmother. “I don’t know what to do. What should I do?”

I went into “business mode” and directed the kids to get back in the car, my husband to load my grandma into my mom’s car, and my mom to grab insurance cards and such, and we headed to our local hospital. Instead of spending a day splashing in the surf and watching my kids play in the sand, we were shown X-rays of my grandmother’s lungs.


Apparently this sometimes happens to Alzheimer’s sufferers, as they sometimes unknowingly swallow food down the wrong pipe, and because they aren’t aware, they don’t cough it up, and the food becomes bacteria. The doctor gave me the news because my mom wasn’t quite able to handle it at the moment.

“It doesn’t look good,” she said softly as she pointed to the large cloudy area on the X-ray. Three weeks later to the day, Lela Engelhart departed this world while my mom and I were at an afternoon play. We had stopped by her hospice room on the way to the theater. My grandma’s breathing was labored and raspy, and her face was shadowy and strained, and even though she was not awake, we took turns holding her hand and whispering to her that we loved her, and that it was okay for her to let go.

When we exited the darkened theater to the bright afternoon sun, my mom saw the multiple missed calls from hospice, and we knew. My mother was angry at herself for not being there at the moment her mother passed, and I did my best to calm her. I had never touched a dead person before, but I did that day. My grandmother looked much better than she had just a few hours before. Oddly, the color had returned to her face, which bore a peaceful expression.

I remembered how just the week before she had asked me in her matter-of-fact, spunky tone, “Well, am I sick, or am I just dying?!” At the time, I told her I thought she was just sick, because she had made a turn for the better before she got worse. In addition to the pneumonia, she had several other issues that because of her age and health, were not able to be remedied, but we didn’t tell her about those. We made arrangements to have her body shipped to Omaha, Nebraska, where she would be laid to rest.

When someone lives for 95 years, it is easy to think that her death is somehow easier to process. After all, they lived a good, long life, more than most. But that is exactly why it was so hard to fathom. My grandmother had been around for so long (almost 42 years for me) and I was so used to her in my life that her passing was just as “shocking” to my system as it might have been had she died sooner.

Up until she was about 90, my grandma was superlatively “with it”. She mowed her own lawn, shoveled the snow from her walk, tapped dance with the Omaha Dancing Grannies (pic), and did Tai Chi.

I still miss her
My tap-dancing grandma

In the summer of 2009, however, her deterioration announced itself on the first day of our family’s visit to her home. Shortly after we arrived, my grandma fell from a ladder in her basement. Unbeknownst to us at the time, she was suffering from damaged nerve endings in her feet from Alzheimer’s. This was not her first fall. After an overnight stay in the hospital, our vacation quickly became “Operation Move Grandma to Texas.” We couldn’t leave her alone in her home of over 55 years, and my mom was the only child left of the three my grandmother brought into the world, having survived both my uncle and my aunt.

My grandma, bottom row, first from the left
My grandma, bottom row, first from the left

The move was hard on my grandmother. She didn’t quite understand what was going on, and she often mentioned things she needed to retrieve from her house. My mom ordered home health care for her to help her with some of her Alzheimer’s symptoms, and they made multiple trips to doctors to work out her medication plan. My grandmother was often delusional, hearing music that wasn’t there, seeing faces in the glass case of a clock, and thinking that the actors in TNT’s Classic Movies were talking to her. She often confused me with my mother, or, alternatively, would ask me if I knew who Marie (my mother) was. This upset my mother greatly, I think because it was difficult for her to see her mom, a woman who had been so with it physically and mentally (my grandmother had been the valedictorian of her high school, and although she never went to college, she was as sharp as a tack), suddenly speak incoherently.

“So what if she thinks that the grass is blue and the sky is green,” I consoled my mother. “Just nod your head and smile.” We all smiled through her repeated telling of the story about how my grandpa bought a clock from a passerby’s truck—the same clock in which she saw faces and figures. And although we knew the end was coming, none of us was quite prepared.

Recently, my mother gave me a card at a party we had to celebrate my new “cancer-free” status and to thank all of our friends and family for their support and assistance during my year of treatment. I stole a moment away from the dancing and karaoke going on in our living room to read the card. When I came across her words “I will always be there for you” I choked back tears. The first pang of sentiment was at the thought of her dedication and unconditional love for me, not just during my cancer treatments, but throughout my crazy life. The next pang was the reminder of the realization that she will not always be here for me. That one day, she too, will leave this world.

 Growing up, I never thought I would end up living less than two miles away from my mother, but I am so thankful that I do. In addition to being a fantastic mom, she is a wonderful grandma. And even though we have had some un-pretty moments in pretty places (like a yelling match in the middle of Rocky Mountain National Park), I try not to pass up a chance to spend time with her, whether it’s for a mid-week lunch, a morning walk, or a family vacation. I even tried to get her to buy the house across the street from us when it was up for sale.

 Since my grandmother’s passing, Mothers Day has a little sadness attached to it for me. It is a remembrance of the day five years ago when my mother most likely realized she was really losing her mother.

 I still miss my grandmother every day. I hated that she didn’t get to see me get my Masters degree, yet I was glad she did not have to watch me go through cancer treatments. Whenever I have an important event, she is with me in the form of a pearl bracelet that was once hers. There is so much I could write about both my mom and my grandma. From them, I learned to be courageous yet incorrigible, and most importantly, how to stand up for myself and for others. I hope that I have successfully passed on that courage and fighting spirit to my own daughter and done my grandma proud. 

Rebecca Wells

Rebecca Wells is still trying to figure out what she wants to be when she grows up. In addition to being a mom and a wife, she has been a teacher, instructional coach, and most recently, the dean of instruction at an inner city high school in Houston, Texas. Due to factors surrounding her treatment for stage 3 colorectal cancer, she has traded a career in education to pursue other passions and interests. When she gets all done with chemo, she will return to running, cycling, swimming, yoga and soccer. Rebecca lives in Cypress, a small suburban community just outside of Houston, where there are fields of donkeys and llamas right down the street from the grocery store, and small trailer parks nestled in between subdivisions featuring homes valued at half a million dollars (she doesn’t live in either one!). She shares her home with her husband, daughter, son, and two crazy, crazy dogs.