On May 2, 1987, my 87 year old grandmother, Maria Alvarez, had a major stroke and almost died – but she didn't. Her care fell to my brother and I, and our lives have not been the same since. Visiting her in a critical care home (only!) twice a week and handling the innumerable details of her life, has been the most difficult, and most deeply moving work I've ever done.
"Angels Have Been Sent to Me" – which is what she exclaims every single time we visit – is my way of coping with her. The following are stories from Angels, an environmental installation about Maria, aging, and disability, in which I ask the "normal" public to temporarily disable themselves. Then people travel from the gallery to Maria's home to see a talent show by the patients and talk. This activity takes half a day; people are encouraged to return and volunteer.
Photo: Dona Ann McAdams

Mama 3 Years Later (1987)

I visit my grandmother. Muy abuelita, in Bellevue Hospital. The place you get sent when you don't have insurance, or you're old, or insane.
She is laying in shit. Her own shit. Her hands covered. Feces on her face, her cheeks. She keeps rubbing her jaw and moaning in confusion, (toothless), "Oh, my God, how has this happened? How has this happened to me?" Feces on her nightgown, on her robe. Feces ALL OVER THE SHEETS.
My eighty-seven year old grandmother covered. Primal, maybe is the feeling. Repulsed and compassionate all at once. An instinctual knowing that she needs a sense of dignity in this.
I leave, find a nurse, tell her Lita must be changed IMMEDIATELY, and as usual, she tells me she'll come when she has a minute. There are not enough minutes for them. And there are not enough nurses for me.
I cannot wait. I decide to change her myself. Denise, a young black woman in the bed next to Lita's, also had a stroke – at age 30 – a side effect from acute epilepsy. She's been in Bellevue four months with grand seizures daily, but she's not paralyzed, and comes over to help.
I brace myself against the stench and the vision of my grandmother covered.
Photo: Peter McCraken
First, the bassinet with soapy water. Second, towels to wash and wipe. Third, clean diapers, plastic and regular bed sheets, and a clean nightgown. Denise expertly rolls her to one side, as I strip one half the bed, then Lita of one half her clothes. I clean the folds between her thighs and buttocks, the lips of her vagina, her upper legs, her back, her everything, She is shocked at the feel of cold water.
She is moaning, exclaiming repeatedly, "Oh my God! Oh mi Dios!" Pleading for hot towels. Of course there are none. Forgive me, please, forgive me these cold water towels. Praying frantically. Moving as fast as I can. Her body shaking, covered in goosebumps. Lita is pleading, demanding, cajoling that we heat the towels in the oven.
Gently we roll her onto the now clean side of the bed, push the last half of the dirty sheets aside, the rest of her dirty gown and robe. I start the 'wipe down' here. Sponge the bed sores with the gentle aplomb of an imagined fairy princess. Medicate the sores.
Denise starts cackling and says, "Now, come on, Mama, where we gonna get an oven? We're on the Neurology Ward. They ain't gonna give us ovens, 'cause they know we'd stick our heads in to get over this pain!"
I smile wanly in the midst of my terror. I thank whoever profusely for Denny's help, her compassion, her humor. Her constant banter with my grandmother. She starts kidding Lita about flirting with the male aid, Jose.
Photo: Peter McCraken
"Luscious you said, Mama. Like heaven, you said, Mama!"
"Yes, he was good. So gentle feeding me lunch!"
She brings a smile to Lita's lips. I kiss the ground beneath Denny's feet.

Another Year Later (1988)

(Spoken as if toothless. If you've got a set, speak as if your lips are wrapped around your teeth.)
"Sometimes I am so angry at God about being in this place! But what can you do about the guy? He does anything he wants and you can't take a breath without him."
I like her in this place. I mean, I don't like that she has to be here, in this critical care home, but it beats Bellevue, it beats a state asylum, and I like how she is. She needs me. She treats me good here. Only a little scrap now and then, in this place.

Cups and Saucers

(Toothless.) "This is what you've brought to talk about?" she asks, clearly annoyed.
I ignore her and continue, "Can you see the flying saucer in this picture? Are your eyes still good enough to see it?"
She is straining, then laughs, and asks, "Where's the cup?"
I show her more Unidentified Flying Objects.
"Am I supposed to remember these?" she (toothlessly) asks, still laughing. "I can only remember the saucer!"
"You don't have to remember a thing. Dr. Frema told us we should try and engage our intellectual powers. I thought you might enjoy this book, Folk Concepts of Outer Space. It's fascinating to me.”
"I don't understand any of it"
"It's as simple as this: Some people think there are lives on other planets that visit us on earth."
"That's very advanced intellectual talk. I oan't understand a thing you're saying."
"There's not a lot to understand. Some people have organized to worship outer space, and they think they had past lives on other planets."
(Toothless) "What?"
"Past lives."
"What's that?"
I stare at her, trying to figure how to explain to my Catholic grandmother, who is clearly completely lost talking about UFO's, what a "past life" is.
I return to pointing out UFO and spaceship pictures.
"Look, there's Mother Theresa at a UFO landing pad in Canada. You know her, don't you? The Catholic Saint who's devoted her whole life to working with lepers in India?.
(Toothless.) "She devoted her entire life to working with animals?! she asks with equal amounts of disdain and incredulousness.
"No, not leopards, the black cats!" Now I'm laughing. Talking with Lita can be like visiting another planet. "Lepers, the people dying with leprosy, the one's who are quarantined in special colonies, that no one will go near but Mother Theresa!"
(Toothless.) "No, I don't know this Mother Theresa, and what's she doing with a spaceship? I can't understand a thing!"
"Lita, it's not real hard to understand!"
But I have to remember this woman came into the world riding a donkey, not even a horse, on a farm in a foreign county, using an outhouse and wearing bloomers.Her lifetime is the whole twentieth century. In her years, she has seen the tractor, water running through faucets, the car, the airplane, radio, television, the washing machine! She's washed everything by hand for as long as I can remember. She has seen jets and rockets, and astronauts walking on the moon. Maybe this is where the buck stops. Maybe spaceships and aliens truly are beyond her comprehension. Besides that, she is what people in the United States call an "alien" coming to this country from another.
Photo: Dona Ann McAdams
I tell Lita, "Maybe reading these people's stories will help it make sense."
(Toothless.) "You may think reading is a good exercise in gaining understanding but what's the point of reading if I can't remember what I've read?"
Her usual bullseye shot to my heart, but I am trying the practical approach lately.
"You have a hard time remembering anything these days, Lita, so maybe you should entertain the notion that reading is pleasurable just for the freaking moment!"
(Toothless.) "What a great idea, darling!"
Thank heavens she goes for it! We leaf through the pages, reading about different kinds of UFO's, her favorites being all the ones that are saucer and cup shaped. I like that she's made these UFO's into saucer and cup shapes. For both of us, our favorite twentieth century pastime — coffee in a breakfast joint.