I’ve been meaning to post this for what seems like forever! On March 10, I got an article published in the New York Times, called “My Grandmother’s Story Is Ending as Mine Begins.”
My grandmother knew she’d succumb to dementia long before she began to lose her memory, as her two older sisters had shared the same fate before they died. She fought against time to write her life story, but she will never see her dream realized.
While you’re here, I recently got another article published, this time in Ravishly, called “‘This Is Us’ Mirrors Watching My Absent Black Father Die of Cancer.”
I have a penchant for multigenerational family dramas. Brothers and Sisters, Parenthood, Six Feet Under — they all make me feel connected to my own family, which is more like Full House than The Brady Bunch. Aunts, uncles, cousins, and a strong matriarch make up the fabric of my day-to-day life. So when This Is Usdebuted, I was all in. What I didn’t expect is that it would touch my heartstrings in a way I hadn’t prepared for.
In two days, I board a plane to visit my 86-year-old grandma in Washington State. She’ll be 87 two days after I land. My grandma is slowly succumbing to dementia, which, thanks to the fate of her older sisters, she knew would be her fate as well. Everyone lives long in my family, at least on that side, but they begin to lose their ability to reason, remember and be fully present in the world long before they take their last breaths.
While much of me is excited to visit my grandma, I’m also scared. I’m visiting her in part because she’s slowly drifting away from us. She’s as healthy as a lion, but her mind is becoming frail.
My grandma was my mother for much of my life. Her home was my home for more years than it wasn’t. I watched her run a business, chat up strangers with ease, and manage a household all by herself. She taught me how to parallel park, how to downshift and upshift on windy roads, and how to value my writing just as she valued hers.
In my late teens and early 20s, I devoured her bookshelves of hard cover classics, many of which I’ve since inherited. It was she who taught me the beauty of the written word, and she who made discussing dictionary definitions part of a frequent ritual at the dinner table. Not as a way to flaunt our knowledge, but as a way to continually revel in the beauty of the English language.
My grandma always wanted to write her life story. I remember her writing group gathering around the dining room table and sharing pages from their latest works. The women around the table took their writing seriously, and I knew it was my destiny to follow suit. My grandma, through her own lived reality, presented me with a reality I could visualize. I grew up, became the head of my (single person) household, and use words to convey my deepest thoughts and emotions, and even to pay my bills.
My grandma will never get to write her life story. Her mind is too far gone now to string together memories of a long gone past. While I mourn for her inability to realize her dream, the mourning adds momentum to my own literary projects. My grandma sacrificed a lot to care for those she loved. She raised a handful of children–some her own and some who needed a structured place to stay. By the time she was through raising others, she was too far separated from her own past to put it to paper.
A year ago my grandma and I shared a hotel room at my cousin’s wedding, and we giggled like little girls as we talked into the night. That memory is so sweet that I don’t want to lose it — I don’t want it to be replaced by something more complicated and upsetting. I watched my father slowly lose control over his faculties, and I don’t want to watch my grandma lose control of hers. True, my dad was much farther gone by the time I saw him, and he only had about two weeks left, while my grandma might still have many years. But the grandma I know, the one who raised me, is hidden behind a wall of confusion and anxiety. Grandma can’t read anymore, partly due to the dementia and partly due to her macular degeneration. She needs 24-hour care and often can’t plan five minutes into the future or remember 5 hours into the past.
About ten years ago when I was living in Washington myself, my aunt called to let me know my grandma’s heart had suddenly began fluttering out of control. I sped to her retirement home and arrived as paramedics circled her bed. One gave her a shot of something to restore her heart back to a normal rhythm. As the medicine coursed its way through her, she let out what can only be described as a flutter of sensation–a verbal “whooo” at the strange feeling that had overcome her. I hardly ever cry when things happen, but instead usually remain stoic until I can process it at a later time. However, in that moment, tears suddenly welled in my eyes as my rock appeared helpless and vulnerable. It was a moment I don’t care to relive, but I know such moments are inevitable with the continued passing of time.
My aunt finds little scraps of paper with scribbles of my grandma’s thoughts about the past. All tangible evidences of her still strong desire to get her life down before it’s too late. This is all she has left of her dream… Solitary snippets that will probably never be read by anyone.
I’ll continue to pour my heart out onto the page, and to live the life my grandma created for me through her never ending passion for truth in storytelling. And on Monday I’ll give my rock a gigantic hug and revel in her presence for a full seven days. I’ll do my best to capture those moments and hold onto them for the rest of my life.