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.