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The Art of Dancing
In September of 2000, Beth Wood was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. It began with simply forgetting to turn off the stove after she was done cooking one of her famous meals, or needing a reminder of one of her son’s phone numbers. Then, as most Alzheimer patients do, she began to forget to eat or bathe. She would wake up unaware of where she was. She’d imagine people were stealing things, simply because she could not remember where they had previously been. Her day to day life became full of stress and struggle; her own grandchildren went unrecognized.
Beth Wood is my grandmother.
Almost ten years later, all I see is a frail old woman barely holding on to reality. I see a child who whimpers and whines because they don’t know what else to do. And above all else, I see the remains of someone I had once loved so dearly.
I understand how that sounds; I am openly saying I no longer feel love for my grandmother. But let me explain—I still care. It’s the way you feel about your first dog after it passes away, or the way you look back on an old boyfriend of whom you once loved. I loved my grandmother, but in these more recent years she has become someone else. I do not blame her, and I do not feel resentful towards her for it. I simply acknowledge that my grandmother is gone, and I must take care of what she left behind because I owe her that.
When I was younger, I spent every Monday at my grandma’s. It was the one day both my parents worked, and she was the perfect babysitter. Everything was better at grandmas; I have never tasted a grape juice Popsicle quite like the ones she would make. I was always promised my favorite meal (usually chicken nuggets or cheese quesadilla) exactly when I wanted it. She loved me, and I loved her right back.
The afternoons were spent out in her garden. Now let me tell you, this garden was something to brag about. At first glance, the tangled vines, stems, leaves, and plump fruit and veggies gave the area what my grandma called an “out of control vibe”. And I’ll be honest, it was a mess—but it was her mess. She understood its crazy knots and interweaves, and could find exactly what she was looking for in a heartbeat. I remember sitting Indian style, my hands resting behind me buried in the cool soil. I would watch as my grandma weeded and plucked her way around the perimeter, and slowly worked into the interior—all the while chattering away to me. It was like watching someone cleaning a home; nothing was fully satisfying for her until she reached the final weed that needed to be pulled, or the last tomato that needed to be picked and the garden was clean for the day. Then she’d stand up and observe all the work she had done.
I knew what to do when I saw this; I’d get up from my sitting spot, brush bits of the earth off my little sundress or overalls, and pad my way over to her.
“Some fine work we did today, huh girl?” She’d say, placing her hand on my head.
“It looks better than yesterday,” I’d observe.
“Sure does. How ‘bout a Reese’s?”
“Only if you don’t tell your father!”
And off we’d go, leaving the garden behind us for the time being. Once the old red door of her familiar home would screech open, and my toes relaxed over the cool tiled floor, a Reese’s cup would be plopped into my hand without any reminders of the promise.
“You’ll get the second after dinner,” she’d say, “What will it be?”
Again, I’d find myself sitting and watching her. She’d be preparing whatever my order may have been as I lay spread out on the peeling linoleum. Her grey hair curled around a sun-kissed face, and her callused hands were always busy at work. I had no grandfather, so it was always just her and I on these days. Activities would vary during the in between moments of gardening and munching; on the best days, we’d simply dance. I’d watch as my grandmother cranked up the radio, and she’d hop and swing to the music. She’d take my hands, and twirl me around. I’d skip about the old kitchen, using dish towels as flags, all the while being cheered on by my grandma. When I’d get too tired, I’d collapse on the floor and rest—but grandma never tired. She danced and danced, he grey hair splaying wildly around and her hands above her head, waving at the sky. Her energy was infectious, and I couldn’t stay down for long. She’d pick me up, spin me around, and bump my hips. I felt loved, and rightly so—Beth Wood adored me.
In 2000, a month before she was diagnosed, my family took me away from her to my current home in Vermont. I remember missing her, but knowing she was not gone forever. I’d receive letters from her, all starting with, “My dearest Holly,” and ending with “Love forever”. When arthritis plagued her fingers, she would call. During one of these phone conversations, I learned she wasn’t gardening as much as usual.
“I forget to some days,” she’d say, and my heart would ache.
It was eleven o’clock at night when my uncle called us, telling us my grandmother had called 911 because she was convinced someone had broken into her home and stolen from her—but it didn’t happen. This was when, after a doctor examination, we were informed of her decreasing mental health. It was advised she move in with one of her children, or we place her in a nursing home.
I remember waking up in the middle of the night and hearing my parents arguing with my extended family about what to do. We could not take her, seeing as our home was too small. My dad’s sister couldn’t take her because she did not have the money or time for her. The final decision was made when my oldest uncle said he would take on the responsibility, seeing as my grandmother was a summertime woman and my uncle lived out in San Diego.
“It’s best for her to be in a place she can stay outside year round,” the adults would reason. They were right, but the idea of taking Beth out of her home where she’d spent her whole life, and flying her across the country broke my father and his sibling’s hearts.
However, it was done. And now, almost ten years later, that it where she still stays. I spend a week every summer taking care of my grandma, and giving my uncle and his family a break from caring for her. Every year the stress of the trip increases; I watch her progress farther and farther into the cruel and unforgiving stages of dementia. In the beginning, she would have lucid moments. During these, she would cup my face in her hands and cry, taking in everything she could about how I’ve changed. I cried too.
However, slowly these moments became few and fewer, until finally they were no more. This past summer, she spent every moment of everyday confused, and unsure of everything. She knew nothing of who I was. But, in times when I could calm her, she’d tell me animated tales of my younger self.
“Oh, my granddaughter Holly is a mischievous little girl!” she’d tell me, and I’d smile knowing the truth in that statement.
It hurt too much for me, though, to keep hoping desperately for her mind to reach back into reality. It took an emotional toll on me greater than anything I’ve been exposed to yet in my life. So, in a silent vow to the grandmother I knew in my memories, I took care of this dying woman with no sense of remorse or sadness. I did it for myself, however selfish that may have been. In this way, it was easier for me to deal with the constant asking of, “Where am I?” and “Who are you?”. In this way, I distanced myself.
On my last night alone with her, I cried. I cried for the woman I had lost, so long ago, to this awful disease. Though she did not understand why I was crying or who I even was, she patted my back and told me it would be alright. A couple minutes later, she forgot where she was and left me alone in the empty kitchen. Suddenly, I heard music coming from her room. Assuming the music would confuse her, I pulled myself together and followed the sound knowing I should turn it off.
The door to her room was cracked open slightly. I remember this moment like it was yesterday; I remember feeling apprehensive of looking inside, afraid of what I’d find. I didn’t think I could watch my grandmother, once so strong and loving, cry from fright and general confusion anymore. Part of me willed myself to walk away, and just let the music play… but my body pursued further, and I peered into the room.
My grandma was neither crying nor confused—she was dancing.