My oldest brother, Mike, was speaking of our grandmother, our father's mother. Mary Birdena Hussey was her birth name, though most everyone in the family called her Dena. There were some who called her Mary, her coworkers. doctor, bank teller, the meter reader and such, but to me and my two brothers, she was Grammy, and Grammy was her most cherished name of all.
"I just came back from the nursing home," he said. "She looks like she's doing okay, getting thinner, and she cries and begs to come home. She worked and sacrificed her entire life for the family and now all she remembers is her own name, and she says it over and over. She doesn't know who I am but she knows I'm someone who can take her back home. I feel so guilty about leaving her there when she's done so much for us. I hate Alzheimer's!" he hissed vehemently.
I felt his pain subside as I waited quietly for him to go on. I understood too well about why she said her name over and over; it was one of my secret guilts that I didn't tell him.
Grammy and I were outside in her yard, enjoying a beautiful New England summer day. She took my hand as she often did and held it and then brought it to her lips and she kissed the palm of my hand. "I think I'm losing my mind," she said.
"Grammy, I don't think you're losing your mind," I assured her, panic seizing me like no other panic I had ever experienced. "Tell me, what's your name?" I threw an arm around her and hugged her until she squealed with delight. She loved being loved. I loved loving her. The fear of losing her was incomprehensible.
She laughed, "Mary Birdena."
"See, you're okay. People who are losing their mind can't remember their name. As long as you know your name, you're just fine." Her large hazel eyes peered deeply into my dark brown ones, to see if I were telling her the truth, and she seemed satisfied.
"It's just that I seem so forgetful lately...but okay. I'll know I'm fine as long as I remember my name..."
"Grant and I were talking about Gram," Mike continued, " and what we remember most about her. You know how there's usually one thing that you remember the most about a person?"
I hadn't thought to define Grammy's essence and spirit with a single memory and I was a little irked by the thought that someone could be summed up so succinctly; but it was a curious statement. "What do you mean?"
"Well," he said, "when I think of Grammy, I think of her as always offering me an apple. Every time I went to her house, she always offered me an apple. I'd say I didn't want it, but she'd make me take it. Grant says she was always giving him canned peaches. Remember how she always had canned peaches and pears and fruit cocktail under the sink cabinet?" Yes, I could clearly see her badly yellowed, white enameled sink, two cabinets, one each side, one for pots and pans on one side and canned goods in the other. She kept creamed corn in there for me when she made chicken fricassee for Sunday dinners. "What do you remember?"
"Those creme-filled vanilla, strawberry, and chocolate sugar wafer cookies, I suppose." That was not what I remembered the most about her, but it's what I said. "She always kept a secret stash of them in her white dish cabinet." She also kept a stash of rainbow colored gross grained ribbons for my long hair that she loved. The baby books she kept of me had dozens of pictures of the back of my head because she loved my long dark hair.
"Gram always loved you best. How come she never loved me and Grant as much as you?"
It's too complicated, really, to understand and explain family dynamics between siblings, I thought. I said, "I suppose because it's easier to relate to another female, because I'm the one who spent the most time with her, because Dad loves you best and because Mom loves Grant best, because Grammy always wanted a daughter and had a jackass for a son. She loves all of us, just differently. She and I just had more in common, that's all."
Mike thought on it for a moment, and said "Trade you Dad for Gram. She can teach me how to cook and you can learn to drive a dump truck."
"No deal," I said.
It was a six-hour ride one way to the nursing home to visit my grandmother in Vermont. Connie, my boyfriend, was keen that we should see her as often as we could while we could and we'd make the trip once a month or so. The residents would crowd around us, vieing for scraps of our attention, asking if we knew where their children were, asking us to come back.
I would trim Grammy's nails (she was always particular that her nails should be short) and comb her hair "extra pretty." Her eyes would light up, and she'd smile broadly as I assured her that she was the most beautiful Grammy in the whole entire world.
As we would get ready to leave, she would always beg me to "take her home" and promise "I'll be good, please take me with you," and the guilt at not being able to take care of her, to take care of her as I imagined she would have done for me, would be so overwhelming and suffocating that I would leave a sobbing, wretched mess.
The Alzheimer's progressed rather quickly once she was diagnosed. When she first went to the nursing home, it was just to provide her with assistance for her daily activities as she could not cook for herself or attend to her financial needs. As time went by, the bright light faded from her eyes and she lost the ability to speak but a few words. I could see her trying to remember how to speak, her lips twitching, but only indiscernible sound coming out.
At the end, we went to see her to ensure her care. I still filed her nails and made her "extra pretty" and told her she was the most beautiful Grammy in the world. She seemed happy for the attention, patting my hair, and eagerly accepting my kisses, holding my hand in her frail one as we walked the nursing home hallways. My brother Mike stopped going "because she doesn't recognize me anymore." I tried to tell him that Grant and I didn't go and visit Grammy because I thought she would recognize us, we went because I still recognized and loved her.
Do we know when it's the last time we shall see a person on this earth? I think some might and that this knowledge is a gift that is the greatest on this earth. A blessing from God to his children. Was it in October? Perhaps. I remember autumn in it's magnificent orange, red and golden splendor. Vermont fields once green, now beige and flaxen, a warm shining sun, but not the hot sun of July. A breeze with the faintest hint of coolness. The languidness of summer fading.
As Connie and I entered the nursing home, I saw Grammy sitting at the piano that was in their recreation area. In her mind she was playing a tune that only she could hear. Her knobby fingers ran up and down the keys, her eyes were closed. (The nursing home had unplugged the piano long ago as she played the same chords incessantly, to the annoyance of everyone in earshot; they couldn't get rid of the piano, but they certainly stopped the sound). As if she knew we were there, she opened her eyes and looked straight at me and stood straight up in unrestrained delight. She scurried as quickly as she could to me, arms open, lips pursed in an anticipated kiss.
I scooped her up, lifted her lightly off her feet, in a mad hug, being careful not to break her fragile body. I set her back down, and the life and the light was back in her eyes. Her lips twitched and little grunts came out. She reached up, cupped my face in her deeply wrinkled and heavily veined hands, and poured herself into my eyes. "Love," she croaked. I immediately started to sob uncontrollably. She patted my hair, as she had so often done when I was little. "Pretty," she barely mumbled. I was holding onto her for dear life, my heart bearing the greatest pain I ever knew. I could hear Connie crying behind me, blowing his nose. Grammy squirmed away from me, reached into her skirt pocket, searching for some little treasure.
She put her clutched fist into my open hand; I looked to see what she had give me. And there it lay, a little cellophane packet of graham crackers, crumbled and crushed. She closed my fingers around it and once again peered endlessly into my eyes.