Both of my grandfathers died before I was born. My grandma on my dad’s side died somewhere around fifth grade, if I remember correct. My memories of her are vague and shifting. The smell of her and her home, a cabinet full of glass and china, hugs, Christmases, her funeral, parts of where she lived. It is not that she was not a good grandma or that I did not love her, but I did not see her as much as we saw grandma Koji, from my mother’s side, of whom I remember much more. She loved Elvis and treats, she let us watch cartoons. I still remember the room I shared with my siblings when I was younger and we would visit. They would share one bed, sharing jokes and laughing while at first, I had what seemed more like a crib. My parent’s room had a high blue ceiling with a vent connecting, there were slants to the ceilings and kitten pictures that hang in my room today. I remember her yelling at me when I stuck the wing of a plastic bat in an outlet, her calling me when she got a double yolk in one of our eggs. I remember the tiger picture she had in her room, and that it had only curtains instead of a door. Her well worn slippers, her night dresses, how scared I was of her basement and the little mysterious door that was in the wall halfway up the stairs.
My grandma has alzheimers. She is eighty-eight now, and lives in a nursing home down by my aunt’s.
She had the most amazing laugh I think I have ever heard. I hear it sometimes when my mom laughs and hope to God one day that someone else will hear it in mine.
We went down to Indiana this weekend for Christmas, the first time in a few years. We only go down there in groups, for Bear games, summer visits and Christmas. It’s too much of a drive to do much otherwise, and with my brother sick and my sister a new mom, it was only myself and my parents this year. My aunt offered to take us to go see “Momma,” and though I am one of those people who does not care for nursing homes, I agreed to go, as I usually do.
We drove out there, my mom, aunt, cousin and I, and wandered down to the cafeteria to find her. My aunt is on a first name basis with most of the staff and many of the residents. She walks with purpose everywhere, but particularly here. Guiding us past the lunch room, she brought us to my grandma. She was sleeping, and when we woke her, she seemed startled at first. We said hello, somewhat faking cheeriness in the face of the grief these encounters bring, and, after a few mumbling kinds of words I couldn’t understand, she suddenly started jabbering. “Dadadadadadadadadadadadada.” Just like a stuttering engine.
I have never seen my grandmother do this kind of thing.
My mother tells me they think it’s from strokes.
My aunt said this was a good day. Wandering off to find water or some such thing, my mother took control. Speaking to her, explaining who she was and asking questions on how she was, yielded few results. She brought a Christmas present from the family, a picture of her great grandson. Mom explained who he was, and she denied it, the rest of us laughing as we insisted.
Finally, my mom offered a trigger, a song she knew from childhood. She had found a book with it inside and bought it, and standing in front of her mother, holding her hands and bobbing them along to the music, she sang.
My grandmother laughed, giggling like a child and shaking her hands.
Her laugh isn’t the same.
And yet, there’s something in there. I know that there is. There is something that remembers those songs, and just can’t get it out. I feel it when she looks at me and I explain who I am and something seems to click. I see it in the urgency with which she shakes my mom’s hands and half mumbles along with the words. She tries to sing. She sort of does. I know there’s a part of her in there, screaming “I know who you are!”
This is what makes it hard. That there is the woman who raised my mother–one of the strongest women I know–trapped inside a failing brain. That she can remember these things and see her daughter that she loves so much and not be able to say so. That my mom can’t hear those words again. It is such a tragedy for her to be so lucid and to be able to do so little, to sputter like a struggling car.
And then there are the times when she is not as lucid, when she clutches the dolls they give her almost exactly like a child. She seems happy then, in ways, caring for them perhaps like they are her children. Maybe to her, they are. Maybe they are her real children, the memories she still has.
And this is what I wish for my grandmother. That she would know that we still love her, that we understand what she’s trying to say. That when she holds her dolls she would see her kids, and know that she raised them well. That they are raising kids of their own. I dream when she is not lucid that it is not frightening, that the real world, the nursing home, melts away to a beach. Her husband is there, in Hawaii, waiting to hold her hand. She walks with him along the beaches, and he whistles and sings and cooks. They raise poodles like they used to, and he goes bowling while she eats or watches–I’m not sure what she did back then. Elvis plays, the soaps are on, there’s always enough peanut butter and chocolate. In my dreams, she is always happy and never alone, and we all know how much we love her.
Alzheimers skips generations. I am glad and hopeful that I should never have to go through this with my mom, to see her slip away like she did with her own. I hope she knows how much I love her now so that if she does, she always knows, that that is something she will remember.
I fear my kids might have to see it happen to me.
In the meantime, I dream for my grandma. I dream that she is happy, that she knows we love her and understand, and that she sees her dolls on the beach.
Thank you for reading.
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