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We wind along the country roads that are flanked by pine trees and freshly planted cornfields. Finally, we rumble up the long dirt driveway to the muted-red house, needing to be repainted and repaired. As the tires roll to a stop, I spring from the car and happily run into Nana’s outstretched arms, where a shower of kisses falls upon my blond-streaked braids. I hug Grampa around his knees, and he pats my head. After Mom and Dad have said their hellos, I hurry to the door that I proudly open on my own. I have only been able to open it myself for the last few visits, and the glory of this triumph has not yet worn off. When we are all outside on the back porch, Nana hands me a warm chocolate cookie. The talk turns to the plans for the day. Mom and Dad will be helping Grampa clean out the barn, and I will have the honor of assisting Nana with her gardening. Nana smiles at me and says, “Shall we go get started?” I nod, wolfing-down the rest of my delicious cookie, and licking the chocolate off my fingers. Trailing behind her as she goes into the garage to get the seeds and spades, I wonder what exactly “helping Nana in the garden” means. I soon find out.
We emerge into the blinding warmth of the sun. The azure roof above us is dotted with a few wisps of white which resemble the silky stands of hair that brush across my face in the wind. Nana and I walk side by side, but every once in awhile I have to jog to keep up with her long strides (even though she is only 5’ 2”). We stop in front of a patch of brown earth, the unplanted garden that lines one wall of the garage. Nana gazes at it, probably imagining what it will look like later in the spring and summer with all of the flowers growing: the purples and yellows mixed with the deep reds, pale blues, and all the shades of green.
We kneel side-by-side in the cool grass at the edge of the dark-brown, healthy-looking soil. I push my pointer-finger into the dirt to see how it feels and whether or not it is going to be something I like putting my hands into. The cool damp greets my fingertip, and I can’t help but slip my hands into the dirt, which reminds me of brownie batter.
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"Free Personal Narratives: Silent Tears for Grandmother." 123HelpMe.com. 24 Feb 2020
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Absentmindedly, my tongue slips from my mouth and hovers in concentration on my upper lip. I reach for the spade. Tentatively, I stick the tip of it into the soil. I glance at Nana, looking for encouragement. She smiles at me in return, and her pale blue-green eyes light up as if to say, “Go on, you’re doing fine!” I push the spade the rest of the way in, and scoop out the dirt, which slips off the spade into a small pile, just like what slides out the back of the huge dump-trucks at the construction sight we drive by on the way to Nana’s house. Delicately, just like Nana, I lay the seed in the hole and smooth the soil over the top.
Although I am only four and a half years old, I understand that this tiny seed I am planting will grow into a beautiful flower. I have safely buried it in the cool soil. Feeling proud, I glance around me. I see a tree far off in the distance, its branches towering above the small blades of green grass. Long ago, that tree was just a little seed. I, too, am a small seed, hoping to someday grow into a beautiful old tree like Nana is now. I plant myself in her lap. Her arms are a blanket of soil around me. I think about a warm spring day far off in the future where I see myself, an old woman, teaching my own grandchildren how to plant seeds.
The problem is, I don’t remember if Nana and I ever planted flowers together. I don’t know if she gave me a chocolate chip cookie that melted all over my fingers. I don’t remember running into Nana’s arms or being excited about going to her house. I do, however, remember the garden lying dry and barren, hopeful that Nana would recover and be able to plant it. I do remember receiving The Little Princess, the Shirley Temple movie, four years in a row for Christmas, because she didn’t remember she had given it to me already. I do remember being anxious about hugging Nana, because I was afraid that she would have no idea who I was, and I would feel badly.
Maybe I’m lucky that I don’t remember times when Nana and I gardened and ate cookies together, though they must have happened. That would make the difference between the Nana of now and the healthy Nana of before even more poignant. I don’t remember ever having a normal grandmother, because she got sick when I was very young. I know about the times before she was diagnosed only because there are pictures of the two of us playing cards on the living room floor, me making up the rules as the game went along, and she playing along as though these really were the rules. I know she loved me and cared for me, because she made the eight-hour drive the day that I was born to come see me and take care of Mom, and because of the pictures of us together when I was a toddler. Perhaps The Little Princess videos, in some strange way, show how she cared about me. Maybe that is how she “remembered” me – as a little princess.
Nana was diagnosed with Early-Onset Alzheimer’s Disease when she was fifty-six. I was only four years old. I can’t remember much about the good times before she was sick. All I can see is how her illness has affected our family. My grandfather was depressed for years because of the stress of trying to care for an Alzheimer’s patient who was volatile and unpredictable, due to the different medicines she was taking. Nana could be docile and quiet, or suddenly snap and become violent, more than once chasing after Grampa with a knife. Her illness also split up the family: my mother’s brother, Uncle David refused to believe that she was sick, and thus dropped out of the family, ignoring any invitation to go to family therapy because that would be admitting that his mother was sick. He had been his mommy’s little boy. Because of his denial, I don’t know him, Aunt Sherry, or their ten-year-old son, Tristan. I haven’t seen him in the last six years, and I have seen Tristan only twice. They do not know me at all; they sent me a Barbie for my 12th birthday even though I was long past playing with them.
I remember, too, the terrible Tuesday evenings when we would drive down to Winchester to Grampa’s art and frame shop and go out to dinner with Nana and Grampa at Spud’s. We would eat quickly and quietly, listening to Grampa talk about how stressed and behind they were at the Frame Shop. In the pauses, we heard Nana making a sound as if she was continuously sucking food out from between her front teeth, though there was no food there, and this was just a habit.
After dinner, I got to “look forward” to bringing Nana home with us to take care of her while Grampa went to a support group. It was so hard to keep her occupied. For the first few years we did this, Nana would be sit down at the piano and play songs for us. She was gifted. Nana could read music, but she also could play any song by ear, saying, “Hum a few bars,” and then joining in with my singing. Sitting next to her on the piano bench, I felt close to her. My aunts told me that I had a natural talent like hers, more than anyone else in the family. This was partly the reason I quit taking piano lessons years later. I didn’t want to be compared to her. Maybe the sickness, I thought, would come with the talent.
After a few years of Tuesday night dinners, the piano no longer interested Nana because the only song she could remember was “Silver Bells.” She would, however, sit still long enough to watch The Sound of Music. I have not seen any movie more times than I did The Sound of Music, and to this day I know every song by heart. Not only did I get sick of watching the movie, but also I couldn’t leave because Mom wanted me to sit with her. Sometimes I felt as if I was babysitting for my own grandmother. Other times I thought that Mom just wanted me to spend time with Nana to form a connection or at least cultivate some memories. Every time she came over, I felt as if a damper had been put over the evening. I grew quiet. I tried to think of excuses to get out of being with her. Those days were miserable, and I would wonder why I couldn’t just have a normal grandmother.
Now Nana lives in the Dorothy Francis Home, a place for Alzheimer’s patients that was started when a man converted his house into a home for them because his mom was diagnosed with it and had no place to go. Nana, at 68, is by far the youngest inhabitant. The saddest part is that she is healthy enough to live for many more years, yet she is not really living at all. No one knows what goes on in her mind. No one can tell when she is in pain or is happy. The only things she ever says are, “You are so beautiful,” and “I love you.” At least they are kind comments, yet she says them to just about everyone. It’s hard to visit her, because when we go, it is not going to make her day any better, and it will inevitably make our day worse. She will have no idea that we were even there. Every once in awhile, she will look at me and smile, but I can’t tell if she is smiling because it is me, or because she thinks it’s my mom when Mom was little, or because I am just a person who happens to be in the room to see her smile.
I wish I had a grandmother whom I was excited to visit, instead of dreading every moment of it. During the forty-minute drive to the home, my sister Jessie and I ask how long exactly we are planning to stay. Usually, Mom answers, “Only half an hour,” and then immediately changes the subject. As we drive past the Dorothy Francis Home to park on a side street, I stare at the two flags blowing in the wind. One is the American flag; the other is seasonal dependent, a corny Thanksgiving turkey or a brightly colored kite with tulips against a blue background for spring. As we park, it seems that all of us are trying to hold in sighs of dread, pain, and worry about what type of “day” Nana will be having. Will she be happy and conversant, meaning she will smile twice and say, “I love you” once, or will she be having a bad day where she will scowl at us, especially Dad, and pace around the upstairs living room.
We enter the yellow house with black shutters after punching *1234 to unlock the door. I take a deep breath as I cross the threshold to get my last breath of fresh air and to compose myself. As always, Nana is in the upstairs living room, the one with the green couch that crinkles when you sit on it because it is covered with plastic, protecting it from possible accidents if a patient’s Depends leaks. Nana is wearing an oversized, pale, sea-foam green sweatshirt with three daisies dancing across the chest and a pair of khaki colored pants with an elastic waist that are too short, even for her, and reveal her pulled-up white socks and sneakers. As she paces back and forth, we hear the familiar rustling of her “diaper for grown-ups,” as Jessie calls them, and the sound of her trying to suck food out of her front teeth, though there is none. Nana clenches her pink, painted fingernails and chubby fingers into a ball and then releases them, over and over. She gazes out the window, the sunlight lighting up her eyes, which match her sweatshirt. I can see how pretty she must have been in her youth: her eyes filled with a fire that no longer burns, her blond hair curled, not straight and short and dyed dirty blond as it is now, her figure slim, instead of chunky.
Jessie and I follow Mom to give Nana a hello hug, feeling just as awkward as if we were waiting in a receiving line at a funeral. We give her a quick hug each, barely touching her and forcing a smile. Mom, however, holds her close and gazes off into the distance, maybe seeing times they hugged years ago. We pass the next twenty-nine minutes telling insignificant stories about school or soccer, trying to ignore Mom’s unsuccessful efforts to get Nana to stay seated next to her on the couch. Nana sits at most for five minutes before getting back up and pacing.
Sometimes however, she will sit and look over at me by the window. She will smile and stare. It is a blank stare, but strangely, it feels as if she can see right inside me. I wonder if she can how similar she, Mom, and I are to each other. We have the same shaped eyes, blond hair, and gentle temperaments. I wonder how much we are truly alike, whether our genes reflect that. I wonder, too, if Alzheimer’s is as genetic as some studies are showing, that fifty percent of the offspring of victims have the gene for Alzheimer’s and of those fifty percent, a majority shows symptoms. I try to think of something else. Dad and I analyze my last lacrosse game. Finally, the half hour ends. Mom kisses Nana’s forehead, something Nana must have done to Mom when she was little.
We punch *1234, again, this time to unlock the door so we can get out. In sullen silence we walk down the street to the car. I breathe in the fresh air, hoping it will push the lump in my throat back down to my toes until the next time we visit Nana, and I exhale slowly. While we are driving back past the house on the way to the highway, I look at Mom in the front seat, feeling I should tell her that I love her or something. She sits with her hands in her lap and her back perfectly straight, gazing, unseeing, at the road. Silent tears trickle down her cheeks, and I wish that there was something that could be done to make Nana healthy again.