She looked like her, spoke like her, but was not her. She was nobody – and yet each day she continued to speak, to breathe, to eat. Her actions appeared mechanical, instinctual. However, those who bothered to look further found that humanity continued to course through her body and spirit. Elicited laughter rang with the same familiar comforting cadence, and her smile continued in its ability to fill a room…
It had been over ten years since her husband had died, and over sixty since they had been wed. A war came while they were still a young couple, separating them. Although he never made it overseas, she worried about him with the same single-pointed intensity as if he had been on the front lines. Every night apart she fell asleep praying for his safety, and woke every morning dreaming of their reunion.
He was one whom often had the term “dabbler” affixed to his name in casual conversations. He was interested in a great variety of fields – dentistry, ham radio, photography – anything that struck his fancy. He even took up jewelry making, his work prominently displayed on his love’s ring finger. And yet, for all this dabbling, he never wavered from her – he had many passions throughout his life, but only one love.
Eventually the hostilities of the world waned, allowing them to be together once again. Their relationship took on new life, along with creating two brand new ones – two little girls. Oh, they fought and cried, (and being Italian used their hands to emphasize each and every point made to the other), but more importantly they laughed and remained together until his death.
And now, if you ask her about the man she was married to for over half a century, she replies, “I wish I had gotten married,” and proceeds to ask you if you are married. If her words are to be believed, the faded photograph of my Grandfather doesn’t mean a thing to her – it may just as well have come with the frame.
Her words have the same rhythm, the same inflection, but I no longer know where they come from – or who they come from. She is always pleasant towards me, but there is no resemblance whatsoever of the relationship which began before I was born. She feels closer to the volunteers and staff than to her only grandson, despite any attempts on my part. Mentions of that designation are not even acknowledged – she simply allows them to fall by the wayside and disappear.
I continued to visit her regularly, but it became more and more difficult with each passing week. Often I came on a Thursday, (as it is my day off) the same day the local high school volunteers stopped by for a few hours. The routine was as follows: I would arrive with the afternoon quickly approaching behind me. Signing in at the desk I would take a deep breath and turn to my left, picking out her white head from the rest of the flock. Normally she was dozing in the sun – she had the early lunchtime, leaving her quite full and rather sleepy.
Gently waking her I would introduce myself to her as her Grandson and she would reply with a half-awake “hello” (despite assurances from her that she was NOT sleeping). I would do my best to present her with open-ended questions, compliment her sweater, and we would slowly pass the time together.
Sitting next to her I could see into the dining room. As it was between lunch times, the hall was deserted, with the exception of one resident. I watched him go though the same motions each and every time I was there – hobbling along slowly with his cane, the gentleman (always in the same checkered pajama pants and green shirt) sat down to an unset table. The only thing on the table was a basket in the middle, filled with sugar, salt, ketchup, mustard, and crackers. He proceeded to very carefully choose a package of crackers, eat them plain, brush his mustache with his handkerchief, then get up and leave. He would soon return and repeat the process four or five times.
Returning my attention to my Grandma, the volunteers would soon arrive. She had made friends with Lindsey, a girl of about 16 who could always be counted on to elicit laughter and smiles. I sat and watched my Grandma regard this girl, this stranger, with the warmth and kindness she had always lavished on me growing up. It was wonderful. And yet, when it was just the two of us again, she was simply…pleasant.
I was no longer family and neither was she. We were unpersons together. We used to laugh – countless days and nights, endless holidays together – and now my words fell flat. It was almost as if she had made a conscious decision to forget her past – her pain – and I just happened to be an innocent casualty of it.
I am still unsure if it was more for myself or her (…it was for me…), but I was determined to become part of her life once more. She used to tell me stories all the time, and so I decided to tell her one. I no longer would try to get her to remember anything. And so, when we next met I arrived the same time as the volunteers and created a new character for myself:
“Hello Ann, I’m Charlie, this is my first time here.”
“Hello Charlie, sit down.”
She motioned towards the couch with her right hand, and I saw her ring catch the sun. In that moment I didn’t know if I could go through with it, but I figured my Grandfather would understand my deception. With a deep breath I just began to speak:
“How’re you doing? Have you been outside? It’s a beautiful day.”
And so it went.
I proceeded to tell her all about my (our) family (changing the names), and for the first time in years she seemed actively interested in hearing the exploits of people she considered strangers. It was heartbreaking when she would say things such as “I don’t have any family left, they‘re all dead,” but there was nothing I could say.
The weeks passed and soon she began to remember me from visit to visit. We laughed again and shared warm moments like we used to. It was hauntingly bittersweet. She did not retain details, but would occasionally surprise me by asking about something I had mentioned during a previous visit – how was my mother/girlfriend/cat?
It was everything I could ask for. I began coming twice a week and we would often play games – her favorite was to simply sit in her wheelchair and make fun of the other residents. She even began asking me some of the lovingly pestering questions I had heard hundreds of times as a child, and always tried to feed me, instructing me to “at least have an apple.”
I had done it.
The day was like so many before it. The afternoon sun shown bright with no signs of waning. I signed in, but she was not in the lobby. I took the elevator up to the second floor and went to her room. It was locked and there was no answer.
It was at that precise moment I knew I had lost my Grandmother again, and Charlie had lost his friend. This time no stories or clever tricks could change the fact that she was gone. My surroundings took on a glassy hue, but no tears were forthcoming.
As I made my way out of the Home that day, I passed the dining room and saw the gentleman in the green shirt. He was early – the tables had not yet been cleared from the first lunch. Grabbing a red delicious from a basket of fruit, I whispered a “thanks Grandma,” and smiled.
– October 2009