My memories of my grandmother, or my halmoni as I knew her, go back as far as I can remember. Soon after I was born, my grandparents left their home country to be closer to my mother. My grandfather had been diagnosed with, and later died of, pancreatic cancer, spending his last few painful months in hospice. When my mom and I moved to the opposite side of the country, to New York City, my halmoni remained in California—where she lived in a retirement community with other elderly people. She had become accustomed to her life in America even without her husband and became an active member in her community.
My halmoni was an integral figure in my childhood. Though there was a bit of a language barrier between us, I never questioned how much she cared for me. Whenever I was sitting next to her, she would hold one of my hands in both of her own. Every time I’d visit her, she’d make all my favorite foods and be so pleased when I successfully polished my plate clean. We even developed our own way of communicating in broken phrases of mixed Korean and English, teaching each other new words to expand our respective vocabularies. I also remember helping her study for her U.S. naturalization exam when she was working on obtaining citizenship, which required extensive knowledge of American history and government.
When I was 16, my grandmother’s health began to decline and my mother decided to drop everything in order to take care of her. Diagnosed with hypertensive heart disease with the added complication of obstructive sleep apnea, my grandma was put on a number of medications in an attempt to keep her high blood pressure and high cholesterol in check. It was difficult to watch her struggle with a debilitating disease despite her healthy lifestyle.
She had always been in the habit of staying active and consistently maintaining a nutritious diet. However, her blood pressure was constantly fluctuating, thus requiring regular monitoring. Out of control, it would dip well below normal ranges and then spike a few hours later. I would measure her blood pressure twice a day and record the systolic and diastolic readings to chart the changes, each day hoping that they would finally stabilize. Her days were filled with bouts of dizziness, fatigue, shortness of breath, and numbness due to poor circulation.
The doctor visits were endless. My mom would chauffeur her to each appointment and facilitate the doctor-patient communication. When I would accompany them, my grandmother would always clutch my hand tightly the entire time. It seemed like each doctor would send us off to an additional specialist—ultimately expanding her team of doctors to a total of 6. Each doctor needed to be kept up-to-date on all her current prescribed medications to prevent drug interactions and ensure the best possible course of treatment. Whether it was a new medication being added or a dosage being adjusted, the list of her medications was constantly changing, changing the handful of pills she swallowed each morning and night. This rainbow of pharmaceuticals was keeping her alive and with us.
One day when my mom wasn’t with her, my grandma took three different buses by herself to the beach. She had been that determined to hear the soothing sound of the ocean and breathe in the salty air. We realized she was increasingly forgetful and confused. She would misplace things and forget parts of her day—sometimes forgetting what she wanted to say mid-conversation. Eventually, she was formally diagnosed with early-stage Alzheimer’s disease. Despite many efforts to improve her condition, her health only worsened. Within the span of a couple years, I saw my halmoni go from a cheerful, lively woman to one that was weak and largely dependent on others.
After a year of caring for her mother, my mom decided that it would be best for us to move back to California to be near my grandmother since she required daily care and her condition seemed to only be declining. We made arrangements for the transition, and I was prepared to change schools at the end of the school year. But then, my grandma suffered from a massive stroke one night—and just like that, she was gone.
As my first personal encounter with family illness and death, it took time for me to put aside my sadness and fully acknowledge that she was finally at peace now that her suffering was over. By loving her and caring for her, we had done everything in our power to help her. After witnessing first-hand the psychological, mental, and physical strain that caring for a loved one can put on family members, I know that needing help does not mean you love them any less—in fact, it’s just the opposite.