family

Forgetting and Remembering: Gran's 89th Birthday

Today would have been my grandmother's 89th  birthday. A reminder is still set on my calendar but I didn't need it. Her death is too recent; I am still overly aware that she is gone. 

I've written so much about my grandmother through the years, about her influence on my life. Practically everyone who knows me knows how important she was to me. Through her dementia the past five years, I worked to honor her, who she was to her family and friends. I wanted to record as much as possible about her life while she was able to recall it. So I wrote essays and blog posts and half-finished snippets.  We had conversations (when we could) about places she'd seen, people she knew, food she'd cooked. She told me stories about my father as a boy, about my grandfather when they were dating. Sometimes she asked me about my friends, the ones she remembered hanging out in her kitchen, and on her carport late into the night. Through all of our time together, as a girl, a teenager, and especially a young adult, my grandmother always pushed the importance of listening and of being heard. I couldn't stop thinking whether she felt heard, whether she felt listened to, loved. 

As a lifelong health advocate and nurse, she tirelessly worked to be a voice for her patients, for those in need of care. Gran believed in saying exactly what you meant, and doing so quickly. In her line of work, minutes, seconds counted. She loathed a conversation where it took to long to get to the point. It was the same with books. If it took too long to get to a plot point, she would stop reading. Like her mother, she enjoyed a good story but as someone who never stopped moving, it better be worth her time. This seemingly contradictory trait was born from necessity. As an OR nurse, expectations, jargon, and being in charge eked into her life with us. She perfected the art of cooking while telling a story. She was a fan of doing two things at once, but only if you were good at it. 

A thousand little moments between us filter though mind on a daily basis: the way she sang in church, head slightly tipped up, how she sat in her recliner moisturizing her hands at the end of each day, the quiet hum when she folded clothes or searched the fridge for a meal. I appreciated the morning ritual of coffee and toast, morning devotional, going through her calendar, reading the paper. At her funeral, I talked about the way that living her (and her mother) made me appreciate the small details of life, the minutiae of our routines, how we lived together like a symphony, each of us knowing when to come in and exit.

It's impossible for me to imagine my girlhood without her. She was so present in my life, every milestone, every accomplishment, but also darker days of grief and tragedy and trauma. Though we often lived hours from her, she made every effort to spend quality time with my brother and I. She'd meet my parents halfway at a highway Stuckey's so we could spend months with her in the summers. She visited often. She helped us decorate birthday cakes. She let us eat ice cream on her front steps. She always listened to the radio, had some music in the house going while she cooked, or put on her makeup, or washed my hair. She would sing, and hum, and play records, and tapes, and eventually CDs though she told me she never liked them. 

In the house where my father grew up, we would open the windows and doors. Music filtered out into the night and a chorus of frogs and crickets would join in. I wonder if this is why I have to sleep to some kind of noise.  I slept in a twin bed on risers, wedged into the wall space between my grandfather's desk and the window. Though the room opened into the hallway, I felt secluded, safe. The small house of my father's youth was comforting. His history was there and my present. I felt connected to family both in the abstract and literal sense in ways that didn't always happen during the rush of a school year when other distractions were pressing. I read my father's childhood books, took tea in mason jars packed with ice to my grandfather in his outdoor shop/garage as he "tinkered away". The man could put away some iced tea. To this day, tea tastes better, colder out of a mason jar. 

Southern girls my age may have similar stories about their grandparents. I don't know that my experiences are unique but they are significant because they build an anchor for me, a way to root and tether myself particularly on difficult days. Days like today. 

I am so unbelievably grateful to have been loved so fiercely by a woman like my Grandmother and her mother and relatives. The women in my family have provided a lineage and a legacy of which I am both proud and also in awe. I want my niece to know these stories. I want to tell her about her own father as a boy and all the silly things we did together, often at Gran's house in the summer. I want her to see the influence of my grandmother in her own life because of the time we spent together. And I want her to know the importance of being heard, of using your voice on behalf of others. 

My grandmother was many things to many people. At her memorial service so many of them stopped to tell me stories of her influence on their lives. She was so dearly loved and respected. I hope she knew it. Because she never let a moment pass where she wasn't ensuring how deeply we knew of her affection, care, and love for us. 

As dementia was taking her from me, I felt like I was in a state of mourning. The woman I'd known my whole life was no longer the stable presence I'd come to depend on. She was some version of that person at times, but without the memory of the experiences that shaped her, she was left to invent someone else. I often felt discouraged; it was challenging to reconcile the person I knew with the person she was. So it felt like I mourned her frequently, the more she forgot. But today, to wake up on what would have been her birthday, and not be able to call her or send a silly video, I mourn her in the way she encouraged most; I write about her. I will always write about her. 

Other Gran-focused posts: Something Else About Kitchens, The Keeper of Stories, All We Do Not Know, If I Had a Time Machine

the keeper of stories

When my grandmother moved into assisted living, she gave me many of her photographs, some I’d never seen. “Don’t you want these?” I ask, pulling out a picture of my grandfather on the beach. He rests on his arms looking up at my grandmother in her one piece. His smile is big, white teeth bright in the sun. They look tan and happy, and young.

“I’m afraid it will confuse me,” she says. “I will look at that one day and not remember how much I loved him. That will break my heart.”

Each time I see her, my grandmother looks small. She is fragile, now. The woman who ran an operating room in her twenties, who was sharp-tongued and quick-witted, who taught me to cook and challenged me to do more, to expect more from people in my life, the woman I’ve always looked up to and wanted to be, is disappearing from me, blurring like a polaroid, fading like her memories.

I was talking to my mother recently, who sits with my grandmother about 3 times a week, and she told me that for the first time Gran couldn't remember my grandfather's name. She still remembers relationships; she often calls my father simply "my son" instead of Bruce. But until now she'd always remembered my grandfather, Edward.

This is it how it goes with the brain, with memory. "Just like moments of clarity, what she will forget is unpredictable" the neurologist told us when he showed my father the initial brain scans, which made clear the damage the mini-strokes (and perhaps a previous fall) had caused. And though I understand the need for medical distinction, there is nothing small about the impact of my grandmother's illness.

I think about that photograph of my grandparents at the beach, and the way my grandmother traced its edges before she handed it to me. I cannot imagine losing those pieces of my life, to not remember details of a day at the beach, or the first time I said "I love you."

For some reason I was recently looking for a specific email and stumbled across early emails between M and I. We were both early Gmail adopters and our first email to one another is from 2005. In it, M laments that I'm the only person who emails her. I think about how much email we receive now and laugh. Most of the emails are short, conversations about what to make for dinner, or whether M needs a ride. Some simply say, "I love you," or "Hang in there." Many are words of encouragement for an exam or project. I love that there is a digital record of us like this. I love that it shows our young relationship, messy and intense and completely enamored. I love being able to relive all of it. To lose that knowledge, to have memories feel elusive, almost there but not quite, would be heartbreaking.

I have written pages and pages of my grandmother's influence in my life. The time I spent living with her and her mother, three generations of women in a house, is a time I would not trade for anything. I've also written about the ripple effect of her illness, the ways that we all struggle with the loss of her memory. I wonder, perhaps more than I should, how scary it must feel to have someone look at you and search for the flicker of recognition, but being unable to offer it, or to look at photographs and feel unsure of who is in them. So much of both my personal and professional work is about identifying and conveying who we are. I think about the ways that our experiences build pieces of our identity. I continue to wonder what happens when you no longer remember those experiences. Is what is left your core self; is it brain chemistry? Is it how others see you? What do you cling to?

I send my grandmother cards, and talk to her when I can. I look at the photographs she gave me, ones of us from my first years in college. I try to keep her close to me, and I can't help feeling that suddenly I am the keeper of her story, and that I know more about her life than she can. And yet, there is so much I don't know.