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My grandmother is an artist. She is a teacher, first and foremost, but she paints and draws and creates the most beautiful things. When I am born, she hand makes each copy of my birth announcement one by one; when I am a child, she spends days creating different posters of my favorite cartoon characters for every birthday. There is Barney when I am four and Simba when I am seven and Mulan when I am nine. As I get older, she teaches me how to write my name in calligraphy and the perfect way to dip strawberries in chocolate. She is proud of her talent, proud of her concentration and skill, proud of the praise and esteem from her family and friends.
My grandmother thrives on praise. She loves compliments not because she agrees with them, but because they mean that people respect her. As she gets older and less sure of herself, the kind words don’t come as often as they used to, but still, she takes every one to heart. Her self-esteem is based on what others think of her; it is her greatest flaw, and the one that has been passed down to her daughter, and then to her daughter’s daughter.
In Kindergarten, she comes into my class and teaches us about chameleons, armed with two-dozen beanbag lizards.
“They change colors to blend in with the environment,” she explains, and we are fascinated, captivated. She taught sixth-grade for thirty years, and her ease in a classroom is obvious. She is happiest when she is teaching.
The lessons continue at home. She shows me books on finger art and optical illusions, stairs that spiral infinitely and rooms that look horribly out of proportion. We blow bubbles and stencil animals and make Spin Art that she hangs on the walls of her house. I don’t have a talent for art, not in the slightest, but it doesn’t matter.
“Art can be anything,” she tells me. “It can be whatever you want it to be.”
When I am ten, she walks down the stairs of her house in a flowing black dress, her hair curled and pinned behind her ear. She looks movie star glamorous, like Audrey Hepburn or Elizabeth Taylor or any of the other actresses from her generation that she tries in vain to introduce me too.
She pauses in front of us and asks, “I look terrible, right?”
And because I am ten, I laugh and say, “yeah, you look awful!”
Her face falls and she stares at the hardwood floor and I suddenly realize that I have said the wrong thing, but it is too late. My parents chasten me and I apologize, of course, but the damage is done. Even from a naïve ten year old, the insult stings, and she forces a tight smile as she leaves for the night.
She hates to be photographed.
“No, please,” she begs my mother as the camera zooms in to her face. “I look awful.”
Her hesitation is fueled by a mixture of age, insecurity, and general fear of being exposed. Over the years, I amass a handful of photographs with her. In all of them, her smile is sad, like she knows what she is giving up by letting herself be captured by the lens.
She is a staunch Democrat and a stubborn atheist. She buys toilet paper with George W. Bush’s face on the rolls.
“Only idiots believe in God,” she says, so certain of her views that the cruel judgments roll off her tongue with gentle ease.
She comes to blows with my father, equally opinionated, time and time again. He is a Democrat, too, but not nearly as liberal as she is. And so they argue over politics and health care and war, sometimes fighting just to hear themselves speak.
At Fourth Lake, she is home. This is where she matters, where she plans Potluck dinners and organizes art shows and introduces guest speakers. She has a vital role in the community.
“Myrna does so much for us,” her friends say, marveling at her strength and her skill and her superb precision. “We couldn’t manage without her.”
She glows with the compliments and says it was nothing, just a few hours for the exhibits, just a couple of ingredients for the creampuffs. She is high off of her respect.
When I am eleven, my grandfather, her husband, dies. I remember him in small fragments – the size of his ears, the sound of his hum, the pennies he’d hide for me to find. At the funeral, I listen to my mother speak, then my uncle, then family friends and people I don’t know and then, finally, my grandmother. She has aged enormously overnight, the wrinkles on her face protruding like strings on a violin. She reads a poem; He was my North, My South, My East, My West, my working week and my Sunday rest. When she cries, the sounds fill the room. She loved a boy and he is gone, and she is left naked and breathless.
There was a Before and there is an After, but there is no In-Between. The years after his death speed by, and before long it feels like he was never here at all. My grandmother was always the stronger presence and now it is only natural that she is alone. She moves on like a widow, sadly and slowly, missing him with an enormity that can’t be explained, can’t truly be understood by someone else. We worry about her, sometimes; she is depressed, lonely, but that’s to be expected. He was her North, her South, her East, her West, and she feels like she is nothing without him, a tiny piece of what she once was.
We help her by distracting her, taking her to Paris and art shows and middle school graduations. She is happier with family around, when she is surrounded by her children and grandchildren and cousins. There are bad days, when she doesn’t leave the house or eat anything but a piece of bread, but there are good days, too. She is healing.
The day she loses her memory for the first time, in the car with her family, going to the airport, there is no warning. There is nothing to alert us, to tell us that one moment, she is her usual self, and the next, she is someone else. My mother is struck by panic, my uncle is silenced by fear. I don’t know what to do so I do nothing. She is wild-eyed and terrified and confused.
She refuses to go to the hospital, even though it’s necessary. We drive her there against her will, and she screams at my parents with a rage I didn’t know she had.
“You can’t do this to me,” she cries, and she looks at me, sitting across the backseat, for help. I don’t say anything, and she cries harder. I am betraying her, and I hate myself for it, but I know that I have to.
Hours later, I see the inside of an Emergency Room for the first time. It is white and cold, the hard metal seats bruising my back. People come in and out, sick people, hurt people, people with pain, people with problems, people nothing like her. But here she is, lying on a hospital bed, being poked and prodded by doctors who say words like “dementia” and “Alzheimer’s.”
Even when it is over, it is just beginning. Although she remembers what she could not just hours earlier, my grandmother is apologetic, afraid she has become a burden for those around her. As time passes, she falters more and more. She begins to lose herself in memories and dreams. She stops taking care of herself; she forces her smiles and laughs. I look at her in a new light, analyzing her every move and asking questions no one can answer. Did her hands always shake? Did she always have such trouble looking me in the eyes?
I wish there was a reason, something to pinpoint the blame on. But there does not appear to be a tangible cause; she is merely getting older, and must now deal with the infirmities of old age.
Years pass, and I become old enough to understand what is really going on, but still too young to accept it. My grandmother does not have to be old, but she chooses to be. She could be seventy-five and healthy, seventy-five and happy, but that’s not what she wants. She misses my grandfather more than she can bear, and so she tries in vain to join him. She will not do anything drastic; she won’t take too many sleeping pills, like her mother did, or drive herself insane, like her brother did. She is strong, but not strong enough to deal with the pain that would leave behind for her daughter and son, her granddaughters and friends.
So she cuts her hair too short. She ignores a rash on her leg that starts out small but grows over time to an enormous mess that requires antibiotics and special treatments. She loses her memory piece by piece, forgetting the details of her days but holding onto the things that make her human, make her sane. She rejects her friends, but still feels the pain when they reject her. Slowly, her once-enormous social circle dwindles to a few people, other widows and old friends who won’t abandon her so easily and can’t be driven away, no matter how hard she tries.
One summer, she gets into a fight with a longtime friend over something that neither of them can pinpoint. It grows uglier and uglier until my grandmother is filled with hatred for this woman, this woman who, six months earlier, was a kind, loyal, friend.
“She can drop dead for all I care,” my grandmother sneers.
In all likelihood, the fight was her error, but she refuses to admit that the possibility even exists. She is stubborn to a fault, angered by even my mother’s mere suggestion that maybe, just maybe, she was in the wrong. It is exhausting, fighting with her, and it is sad, watching her push her friends away.
She refuses to move past the years-old death of her husband, her only true love. She would give anything, anything, to be with him, but it isn’t easy to get there alone. Her children watch out for her, reminding her of appointments, organizing her mail, taking her shopping. She knows they just want to help her, but they are trying to push her back into a world she doesn’t belong to anymore.
Before, when my grandfather had just died, she was in a constant battle, to stay or go, to fight or give up. Now, though, too many lonely years have passed. She is exhausted.
So she waits. She waits for death, for comfort, for peace at last. I understand her, but like the rest of my family, I refuse to help her waste away.
So I listen. I hear her silent pleas, her unspoken desires. I want her here, but I know that’s my wish, not hers. So I wait with her. I watch the days pass, the seasons change, the years go by in blurs. I watch her disappear before my eyes, in lost memories and forgotten pills. I wait with her, for death, for comfort, for the peace she wants, the peace she needs. It isn’t easy, but I will wait.