She came home for a week.
That was seven whole days. Those days appear so dreamlike in your memory, you’re sometimes convinced that you imagined them. Threading her fingers through your long hair, tousled in a specific way that could only be explained by the voracity of childhood; asking you the time, and then asking it again. Counting up to ten in Italian, her fast-paced chatter sounding more like a song than spoken word in a beautiful language you did not understand. Ten years later, a decade of Italian classes later; you think you’d probably understand now.
You try to hoard all of her attention with stories--how much reading you have to do tonight, how you scraped your knee from that fall from grace as Playground Queen, how you know how to add up to twenty now. She doesn’t understand English, but she laughs and smiles at all the right parts. It doesn’t reach her eyes. You’ll tell her all about your day, and ten minutes later, she’ll make you tell her again. Your mother hangs around the doorway and often lingers in the room with you, always holding the same expression on her face: a small, unsure smile, neither happy nor sad, that you didn’t understand. Ten years later, a decade of maturation later; you’re sure you’d understand now.
Not that you had the capability to give it much thought. Nonna was home! You were thrilled to see your grandmother again, to be able to reach out and hold her spidery, aged fingers, that time had weathered to be rough like leather. Grandma was home and that meant you could skivvy out of schoolwork and chores and instead spend every moment with her. Nothing else seemed to matter.
“I love you, nonna,” you said, tethering your tiny hands into fists and gripping at the stitching of her long skirt. The floral pattern was garish, her sweater scratched redness into your sensitive skin, and she smelt like artificial pressed flowers. It felt like home.
“I love you,” she offered, because it was all she had. Except it didn’t really sound like that at all--her tongue was augmented with an accent, rich from a lifetime of another language. She would probably never get used to English. She wouldn’t have to. “I love you. I love you.”
Your mother took her back to the airport on a Sunday. You cried and waved until they had disappeared from sight, becoming just another black vehicle in the sea of cars driving by. Just as quickly as she was there, she was gone.
I’ll tell you this now: that was the last time you ever saw her. She will live for another six years and on an undistinguished May afternoon, your mother will start receiving phone calls and stow herself away in her bedroom for hours at a time. You will no longer be six, and you will be able to put the pieces together yourself. It wasn’t unexpected, really; just one of those unpleasant afterthoughts that sets up a tent in your hippocampus, that gets tucked away until you're forced to face it. You’re in elementary school, for example; soon, you will go to high school and wonder where the time has gone. Grandma’s old; soon, she will have to pass. And, some day, so will you.
Your mother will try to explain it gently, in a soft, pitiful way, because she thinks you’re too young to understand. You’re not, but you let her anyway. Nonna was sick and Alzheimer’s takes no prisoners. Your mother explains what it does to the brain, how it eats at you little by little every day. She explains why Nonna would walk into your bedroom with a look of confusion and momentarily leave without a word; why Nonna would sometimes call your brother by your father’s name. She explains how Alzheimer’s excavates your head, leaving something else behind. But, she assures you, it does not reach your heart.
You won’t think about this for a while. In fact, it will hardly cross your mind until four years later, when you and your mother are exploring an old collection of photographs and she wordlessly lingers on a photo of an elderly woman with spider-fingers and an obtrusively bright skirt. Then you’ll remember everything, and in due time, the awareness of absence will stain you like a bruise.
Her voice gets harder and harder to hear in your head; the quick-paced Italian slurring is fading, and once in a while you need a picture of her face to remind you what she looks like. You’re forgetting and you didn’t think it would happen this fast, and you can’t imagine how scary forgetting must have been for her.
But for now, if you’ve forgotten, you’re six years old. You’re very happy that you saw your grandmother. You can’t wait to see her again.