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Dealing with Dementia and Death

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Growing up it seemed like I spent as much time at my Nanna’s house as I did at home, if not more. That’s because my Nanna (Maltese for ‘grandma’) was an incredibly warm, funny, charming and unique individual. We could sit and laugh about nothing for hours on end! Sadly, that is not the case anymore.

I was notified a few weeks ago that my Nanna is not doing well, and her health is fading fast. She had been battling dementia for several years now.  After Nannu (‘grandpa’) passed away just over three years ago, we thought that she would go within six months like most people do who have been together for so long.  However, with her dementia, every day since Nannu passed she has been more confused.  She even asked, just a few weeks ago, “When will Nannu be home from work?” not realizing that he was gone.

My mom lost a lot of weight and the last few months, Nanna didn’t know who she was.  She always had to ask who my wife was.  For some reason, she always seemed to remember me and my oldest son, Ben.  Now, she recognizes no one.  She hasn’t had any food or drink in weeks.  She became unresponsive and her breathing is extremely slow.  My aunt is a doctor, and is surprised she is still with us.  On Saturday they gave her 24 to 48 hours, so the end is near.  Although her memory is gone, I have a lifetime of laughs rattling around in my head that I will never forget.

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Born February 13, 1928, this spirited citizen of Malta, a small island country about 60 miles south of the coast of Italy, only has a 3rd grade education because her school was destroyed in the war.  Nannu decided to come to America where he established an amazing career as an engineer for General Motors.

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He moved her to England while he got himself established at GM and bought them a home in the Metro Detroit area.  She learned the English language by watching soap operas and other television programs.  Then, once reunited with Nannu with her new citizenship, they began to live their American Dream.  However, my Uncle Joe is still mad that he was born in England because he wanted to be President of the United States.  My dad is the first-born Fenech in America.  Uncle Chet and Aunt Mary completed this Maltese-American family that is filled with lots of love and laughs.  They were incredibly frugal.  For example, Nanna would use paper towel as a coaster or a pillow, but Heaven help you if you tried to wipe up a mess with it!

One of my earliest memories in life was when we were staying at Camp Dearborn, and she gave me a bath in a plastic bucket.  I remember her watching us for a week when my parents went to vacation in France.  I get my love of weather and storm chasing from Nanna too.  I specifically remember a tornado warning issued while I was at her house in Warren.  We went to the basement and sat under the pool table, eating cheese puffs and drinking water out of a glass orange juice container that she had probably had since the 60s or 70s.  She kept me calm and laughing the whole time.  After the storm blew over, we went outside to see it it was still in view.  I still remember looking at the sky from her front lawn with the traffic from I-696 just a few meters away being awe struck!

I remember the smell in her house of home-made Pastizzi, a Maltese pastry.  I became hooked after I had my first taste.  I also remember the bickering between Nanna and Nannu, the kind that makes for a strong marriage (my wife and I do it all the time).  They would start to fight in English, then change over to a Maltese spat.  Although they were fighting, for the moment, I thought it was comical because I had no idea what they were saying.  Yes, they were fighting, but they did it with love.  Love is what defined them.

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I also remember that Nannu would never let Nanna and I go into Kroger or Kmart together because we would take hours to get a gallon of milk.  I would sit in the car with Nannu as Nanna went in, and no more than five minutes later he was wailing on his horn (which in the store she obviously couldn’t hear) yelling “Hon… Come on!!!”

And who would recognize my personality without my obsession with ‘Family Feud?’  We would watch the same shows daily… ‘I Love Lucy,’ ‘The Andy Griffith Show,’ ‘Gilligan’s Island,’ and ‘Family Feud.’  My obsession led to making ‘Feud’ boards to play the game with friends, and even at a local night club I used to work at.  I even got Cars 108’s George McIntyre to be a guest host a time or two.

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Another great memory is when I took my game during one of our visits and had Nanna and Nannu play against each other with the “Fenech Feud” version, where I asked questions about our family.  The comical frustration in Nannu’s voice and the school-girl like giggle in Nanna’s laugh will live in my mind forever!

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About ten years ago, my very good friend Amanda and I stopped in for a visit when they still lived in Warren.  It was the first time I had seen them since turning 21, and Nannu pulled out a bottle of Wild Turkey to celebrate.  A few drinks later, Nanna and Nannu got into one of their signature shouting matches.  When the language went from English to Maltese, Amanda’s eyes looked confused yet thoroughly amused!  After a few minutes of what sounded like Mediterranean mumbling, Nannu said to her “Oh, hon, it’s not me… it’s the booze!”  To this day, Amanda and I still laugh about that!

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When she met my wife, there was an instant bond.  For Erika, Nanna is the closest thing she has to a grandmother, and this current situation is taxing for her almost as much as it is on me.  It was love at first sight when these two amazing women crossed paths.  We were reminiscing this afternoon how she loved to hold hands, even while holding a tissue.  The three of us also could sit and laugh for no reason at all, and boy it felt nice… just to laugh for the sake of laughing.

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Nanna adores babies, and when she learned that she was a great-grandma she was ecstatic.  She wouldn’t let anyone near my oldest… not even me!  Then she did the same thing with Hayli when she came along a few years later.  In fact, against my better judgement, I let Nanna feed Hayli two or three pieces of cake at Nannu’s birthday party, just months before he passed.

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Now, in these final hours, she is stuck in her body… unable to communicate and unable to eat.  As much as I adore this wonderful woman who has influenced me and played such an important role in my life, it is time to say goodbye.  I can still hear her voice calling me, and the pure joy in the contagious sound of her laugh.  Almost as good as Nannu’s gasp-sounding guffaw, Nanna’s was enough to make the angels sing!

I know that right now, Nannu has his car parked at Heaven’s gate, wailing on the horn, yelling “Come On, Hon!”  Their Heavenly reunion will be beautiful!

Nanna, I remember… and when you’re rid of the earthly burdens you are forced to deal with, you will too.  I can’t wait for you to be reunited with the love of your life!  I cherish every minute we spent together and wish you Godspeed.

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UPDATE: Nanna passed away just after 9pm on Saturday, October 6th, 2012. She went peacefully, and is now dancing with Nannu in Heaven.

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