Dad and I walk into the room and find her with her back turned, bent over and studying a square piece of white fabric. She seems so small, the way trees shrink in the winter after their leaves have all been blown away.
“Hey, mom, look who I brought,” he says in a strangely loud voice, then continues as she turns and eyes us up. “It’s Shawn.” The last bit was added to avoid any unnecessary embarrassment.
“Well, look who it is,” she says in a voice that sounds like her old self, only muffled. She reaches up with her still-strong fingers and grabs my chin, then plants a kiss square on my mouth.
“Hi, Grandma,” I say quietly, hugging her. There is a new quality to her hugs now, a desperation, as if each time she lets go she is acutely aware of all the time that has passed.
We sit on the sofa. Her grandfather clock occupies one corner; her bed is just across from us. A string of Christmas cards drapes along the wall – she used to do the same thing in her kitchen, when she lived at her home. She is 90 years old, but she tries to stay busy, which explains the patches she works on.
“Were you able to get to church on Sunday?” my dad says. His loud voice makes me cringe, but she cannot hear any other way.
“Oh, yes,” she says, as if she wouldn’t miss it. “I went to the one here in the building. That was, oh, well, it seems like we’re so far along in the week now.”
“Do you know what day it is, Mom?” my dad asks.
“Well, let’s see, you usually come on Thursdays. So it must be Thursday…or Tuesday or Wednesday?”
“It’s Monday, Mom. I always come on Mondays.”
“No!” she exclaims, not believing him. “So church was just yesterday? Oh, my.”
* * * * *
We look at the family history one of my uncles made for her that lists her parent’s birth dates, as well as those of all of her 11 brothers and sisters. She is the last of 11 children. She cannot remember the oldest two. It frustrates her, and she vacillates between disappointment at not being able to fish up the memory and a refusal to thinly veiled skepticism that they ever existed.
* * * * *
There seems to be a determination to preserve Grandma’s memory, to engage her in little games that will help restore the connections severed by her stroke and old age. I can understand the practical benefits of such efforts – it is important to remember when it is time to eat, and where to find the bathroom.
But I think I’ll leave the efforts at memory preservation to the rest of the family. I am happy to sit quietly beside her and remind her who I am. I don’t mind telling her it’s Monday three different times, and reacting each time to the shock and bewilderment that cross her face. I refuse to make her feel guilty for the huge stumbles taken by her tired mind.
Yes, there is something sad about forgetting. Or perhaps the main sadness lies in being forgotten. But hers is a quiet shutting down, a peaceful fading, and I have always been able to find some semblance of beauty in stark winter days.
* * * * *
She walks us to the stairway.
“So what day is this?” she asks again, as if it was the first time she had asked about that.
“It’s Monday, Grandma. Remember? Dad always comes on Mondays.”
My dad and I walk outside and look up at the second-story window. This is the last time I will see her before we leave on our trip, and for her there is no guarantee about the next four months.
She stands there, clothed in the glaring sunlight of a mid-winter’s day, waving both hands at us as we leave and blowing kisses at us through parchment-paper hands, as if we are leaving her forever.
* * * * *
Whatever Hurts Us Makes Us Stronger: Thoughts On My Grandmother’s Stroke
Watching Someone’s Life Get Sold Out From Under Them
How My Grandma Tried to Reclaim the Washer I Bought at Her Sale