There stood a woman so soaring and overwhelming yet with the sense of a guardian: the kind touch, the unconditional love, the security from anything tactless and risky. She herself was vulnerable, but that did not matter, all that matter was how she felt about me, her grandchild. I was the first of now five. She came to school functions, boasted about how nice I looked on Sundays before church, told me how much she loved me, and taught me how to draw, all with a child like innocence that I adored but did or could not understand.
There is a cool, crisp breeze in the air. It almost sends a chill down your spin; just as the almighty sun shines down and wipes that unwelcome feeling away. The smell of flowers invades your nose and a pleasant noise of the birds that sounds like an orchestra that has never been heard before that greets the senses almost to a point of hypnosis of calm and serine emotions. Just then, a cloud covers that sun, which makes the chill even stronger with its bit. The flowers seem to loose their life and the birds go mute. Confusion sets in, irrational thought, but it seems clear at the same time. Difficulties attending to and processing information, understanding the environment, and remembering simple tasks suddenly become difficult. Other troubles arise, such as hearing voices, suspiciousness, feeling under constant surveillance, delusions, or making up words without a meaning. As if that was not enough, there is social withdrawal and the difficulty of expressing emotions at times.
I am referring to Schizophrenia, from the Greek roots schizein (“to split”) and phr?n (“mind”). It is a psychiatric diagnosis that describes a mental disorder characterized by abnormalities in the perception or expression of reality. It most commonly manifests as auditory hallucinations, paranoid or bizarre delusions, or disorganized speech and thinking with significant social or occupational dysfunction. At any one time, as many as 51 million people worldwide suffer from schizophrenia, including 2.2 million people in the USA.
She was born on Saint Patrick’s Day in Maine in 1947. She was in the army during the Vietnam War, where she met my grandfather in the 1960’s. She did not have her initial break down until her twenties after my grandfather and her divorced. The anguish and the stress of three kids to take care of bore down on her as if she could not breathe and break free. This was the beginning. My mother has told me stories of her childhood of when my grandmother would keep her and my aunt and uncle in the attic of their home because she said that the Russian Spies were coming and they were going to kill them, so they had to hide. Such terror this caused my mom and her siblings, being so young and looking for your parent or guardian to protect you, but at the same time who was protesting my grandmother. She too had that same panic, her illness was the demon inside her and she had no idea.
Later on help was provided for her. First, we ensured that she was taking prescribed medications and seeing a physiatrist. One of the most common reasons that people with schizophrenia relapse into a new episode is that they quit taking medication. Family members might see much improvement and mistakenly assume medications may no longer be needed. That is a disastrous assumption. A later psychotic outbreak will likely happen. The family should provide a caring, safe environment that allows for as much freedom of action as is appropriate at the time. Any hostility in the environment should be reduced or eliminated. Likewise, any criticism should be reduced. We always encourage her in her hobbies. She loved to draw, she loved birds, and she loved to go for walks. We had her live in a secured building with help available at any time. She also was a big part of Stairways in our community. Stairways Behavioral Health is a private, non-profit organization that assists persons with mental health care needs at any stage of life by providing comprehensive rehabilitation, treatment and supports essential for living, working, learning and participating fully in the community.
There was never a holiday grandma was not at. We made special trips to see her on Halloween and she would always laugh and get a kick out of our costumes. Like most people on Turkey Day, she would over eat and take a nap every year. Christmas was not any different. She loved gifts as much as we did. She would ask my mom what to buy us and she loved to see our reactions. She was so proud to be a grandma and she never missed a second to let us know or feel that from her.
One Christmas, she got my sister and me a Scrabble game. After opening gifts, we decided to play while waiting for dinner to finish. The game was going along just fine and while we were waiting for her to go next, she was really quite and we thought she was concentrating on her next word. She then peered at us with her eyes that had uncertainty and irritation in them. She said, “Why didn’t you say happy birthday to me? It’s my birthday, say happy birthday to me!” I looked at my sister in discontent, grandma was serious and it was not her birthday. I told my sister to go get mom and I told my grandma, “It’s not your birthday, it’s Christmas, remember?” In which that only befuddled her more. At this point, my mom had arrived and asked my grandma, “Mom what’s wrong, what’s going on?” And she replied, it’s my birthday and no one said happy birthday to me!” My mom then explained it wasn’t her birthday it was Christmas and like a blink of the eye my grandma looked up at her and said,” Kerry, I know its Christmas I’m not stupid.” After that, I am ashamed to say that I saw my grandma differently and in an unpleasant way. She was crazy, is how I thought. She scared me and I did not trust her. I was timid around her and reluctant to say she was grandma.
As time passed, I got older and it became easier for me to distance myself from her. My mom was becoming overwhelmed with her, as her Schizophrenia seemed to have worsened or maybe the medicine was not as effective anymore. They had a fight over something silly, so silly that I cant even remember what it was. My grandma would call my mom everyday, sometimes twice a day to ‘chit-chat’ and at this point it had been 7 days and no call. I asked my mom if we should go see her and my mom said that if she did not call by Friday, she would go to her apartment to check on her. Well Friday came and still no call. My mom arrived at her apartment building that Friday afternoon to read a sign in my lobby, “We regretfully inform you that Janina M. Wykoff has passed away.” My mom fell to her knees and wept without hesitation, it was surreal. A man coming from the elevator grabbed her and attempted to calm her down. All she could do was call my grandmas social worker and demanded to see a building supervisor and wonder why she was never contacted.
On March 10, 1998 only 7 days from her birthday, she passed away. She was in the shower and had a seizure, began vomiting, fell and hit her head on the tub becoming unconscious. She essentially died from asphyxiation of her vomit. Whenever my grandma got mad at my mom, she stopped taking her medicine to “get back” at her. One side effect of stopping her medicine abruptly is seizures. My mom blamed herself for a long time. As a family, we had so much grief and yet relief that it was hard to express. You never want to loose a loved one; especial in the terrible way we lost her, but God saw her turmoil and her incased confusion and saw a better place for her. I believe she was a broken angel sent to touch our lives with her love, smile and grace and we miss her tremendously. I believe that God sends his broken angels to us to reintroduce unconditional love, kindness and the meaning of life. That is what my grandma gave me.
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