Tell me a story, Grandma.
As a child, I loved sitting with my grandmother as she’d tell me stories of her adventures as a young artist in New York, her perspective of the “Dirty Thirties”, and, especially, the stories of meeting and marrying her true love, my Grandpa. But as the years passed, the stories she loved sharing seemed to take longer to tell as she was robbed of the details. It pained me to watch her face go vacant as she struggled to find the memories that used to be right at the tip of her tongue.
She fought an unseen force stealing her thoughts, memories and personality for many years. It was subtle at first…a forgotten name, set appointments slipping her mind, getting angry or frustrated at small things. I think we all suspected, but nobody said anything. In my early twenties, Grandma was hospitalized in order to have various tests done. She finally got the diagnosis we all feared, but already knew.
It seemed as soon as she got her diagnosis, she slipped away from us even more quickly. Grandpa refused to put her in a home. He wanted to take care of her by himself like he promised her he would all those years ago on their wedding day. The family hired a nurse to help out, but Grandpa still took the bulk of the care on himself. Soon, he started getting sick from the stress of taking care of Grandma, so the rest of us had to step in. We figured out a way to keep Grandma at home, like Grandpa wanted, but help him so he’d have some time to himself.
My uncle, auntie and I all took turns at different times of the day and night to sit with Grandma so Grandpa could have a rest. Even if all we did was sit with her and have tea, the extra company was appreciated. The first time my shift came, butterflies tickled my stomach as I walked up the narrow sidewalk to their house. Would she look the same? Would she remember me? Would things be awkward? Questions swarmed my thoughts as I yanked the heavy screen door open, the way I always had. As the door slammed shut behind me, I heard Grandma calling from the living room.
“Who’s that tap-tap-tapping on my garden door?”
Just like she always did.
I smiled, and the butterflies calmed. I saw Grandpa sitting in his favorite blue velvet armchair as I walked through the kitchen into the living room.
To finish the routine I answered, “It’s me, Grandma. Coming in to get a bear hug.”
Then I went up to her on her couch and gave her a big hug. That time, I held on a bit longer as I heard her fake bear growl echoed through her chest.
She cupped my face in her velvety ivory hands, hands that always defied her age, and smiled. “What are you doing here, dumplin’?”
I glanced over at Grandpa, and moved to stand beside him. He looked so tired and he’d caught a cold.
“She’s here to help, Mummy,” Grandpa coughed.
I kissed his cheek and grabbed his hand.
“Help? Bah!” Grandma waved her hands at me. “Who are ya helping?”
Her smile faded as the vacant stare tried its best to settle in. Grandpa’s eyes welled with tears. He opened his mouth to remind her, but I squeezed his hand.
“I’m here for tea, biscuits and a story, Gram. Shortbread, right?”
Grandma’s face brightened again. “Well, that’s just dandy. That would be wonderful.”
I made the tea strong, put it in her favorite bone white china cup with her shortbread on the saucer. Just like always. When I came back, Grandpa had fallen asleep in his armchair in the middle of folding the laundry. I gave Grandma her tea, covered Grandpa with a blanket and folded the rest of the towels while Grandma talked.
It still felt the same to me. Her stories were a bit mixed up, she stopped occasionally as the words wouldn’t come as easily, and she needed to be prompted to continue, but I knew she was still there.
She put her cup down and motioned me over. I went to sit on the floor but she grabbed me and hugged me tighter than she did when I first got there. After a minute I asked, “Grams, are you okay?”
“I know what’s happening to me, you know. Everyone around here tip toes around it, but I know. I forget things. I forget faces, even my own family sometimes. I hate it.”
I didn’t know what to say. I pulled away from her, looking right into her deep, brown eyes. She slid her hand down the side of my face and continued.
“One day, I may not be able to say this to you, so you just listen. I am proud of who you’ve become and where you’re going. Don’t you let anyone make you feel small, you hear me? You’re a lot like me dumplin’ and I’ll be watching you. Even when I won’t be able to look at you and see you anymore, please know these times will be tucked away in the corners of my mind. Those are the memories I’ll take with me. And that’s how I want you to remember me.”
I cried and buried my face in Grandma’s chest. She stroked my hair and whispered, “You’ve always been my favorite girl, dumplin. And I’ll never leave you.”
Grandma’s condition deteriorated rapidly after that visit. In fact, she went into the hospital the following week where she slowly faded away from us until she finally let go. I remember in the hospital, even when she couldn’t speak anymore and she only stared up at me, I saw the familiar little sparkle in her eye when I’d leaned down to give her a kiss.
Grandma’s stories can now only be heard when I replay them in my mind. On days when I really miss her, I pour myself a cup of tea in the bone white china cup she left for me, grab a shortbread cookie and close my eyes as her voice fills my ears.
She was right. She’ll always be with me. Tucked away in the corners of my mind whenever I need her.
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