My Grandma Rae died last week.
She spent years living in a reality in which the rest of us were not welcome, something that tore at my father and his brothers.
Rae had Alzheimer’s. A couple of Thanksgivings back she was convinced my grandfather died when the Mayflower sank. My father tried in vain to convince her that the Mayflower didn’t sink. That didn’t work. He tried to explain that, for my grandfather to have been on the Mayflower, we would all have to have lived 400 years or so earlier. No go. Finally, he told her: “Ma, look. There were no Italians on the Mayflower. There was one Puerto Rican busboy, but that was it.”
Success. My dad did what had to so that he could deal with his mother’s illness. Her disease didn’t just touch her; her brain’s decay touched us all, left all of us feeling a little less whole and each of dealt in our own way. Some of us couched ourselves in denial, others seemed to forget her after a fashion.
But I was lucky. I had things to remember.
Rae and my Grandpa John moved from New York to my parent’s home in Florida when I was 17, a week before I graduated from high school. Rae raised four boys and I was the first granddaughter, and despite my mother’s ever-vigilant eye, Grandma Rae felt the need to watch over me, too. I went from having one military-strict mother to two. I couldn’t do anything.
In between us bickering, she taught me things, like how to make macaroni from scratch. As I got a little older, I got to see a side of her my other cousins never would. She talked about her family the way she never would to a young child. She talked about her childhood, told me about her courtship with my grandfather. One afternoon, to my father’s distress and my horrified delight, she talked about the more intimate details of her marriage.
I remember my grandfather telling me of hearing notes from my grandmother’s viola drift down from a second-story window. He loved her so much then, and again when he, about to die from lung cancer, told me that story. They fought; horrible, yelling, mean fights, but that passion carried through to every part of their marriage. This was no lukewarm love; she loved him with everything she had.
When doctors diagnosed my grandfather with lung cancer and he declined treatment, I was the grandchild who watched her grieve at close range for a man not yet dead. I was the one who offered not nearly enough comfort as her life shattered around her. I saw her lose her will to live, not little by little but all at once when he died. I always felt like her Alzheimer’s came about because without my grandfather she didn’t want to remember anything.
Little things started to go, like beans left on the stove or an ingredient left out of a recipe. Then larger things, like the morning she fell out of bed and didn’t call out for help because it didn’t occur to her.
I remember the day the doctor’s finally convinced my parents they couldn’t care for my grandmother anymore. She sat on the ottoman in our living room, her big purse over one arm and wearing brown slacks and an orange and brown print polyester blouse. She didn’t understand exactly where she was going but she knew she did not want to go.
Seeing her at the nursing home was awful. The public relations spin on these places has stopped us from calling them nursing homes, but their new labels don’t mask the continual decay within their walls.
Rae was lucky, because most of the time she didn’t know she was in a nursing home. Except for a few horrible moments of clarity, she didn’t know she was hanging in a limbo between the world of the living and dead.
Rae was lucky. One nurse, Louise, cared for her like Rae was her own mother. When I would bring Calypso to visit and my grandmother, who had no clue who I was, refused to see us, Louise would scold her and told her in a thick Jamaican accent that she needed to see her granddaughter. Louise stopped to see Rae when she worked other wings of the nursing home. Louise took a day off of work to come to the memorial service.
When went through my grandmother’s things at the house we found letters from her grandchildren and pictures we had drawn her. Among those letters were packets of love letters from my grandfather, passionate expressions of love that made me understand how completely they loved each other and how she couldn’t, after so many years, bear to remember a world without him in it.
It broke my father’s heart to watch his mother fall apart. Mine, too, but more than that I hated seeing what watching his mother dissolve into a shell of a person did to my father. When my grandma went to the hospital Friday I almost felt a sense of relief. If her body was going to try to catch up with her brain it would end a decade of her not remembering her children, crying every time she realized her husband had died, and, in thankfully rare moments, sobbing because she all of a sudden realized what was happening to her.
I was lucky. I don’t feel it right now, but I know I am. I have a piece of my grandmother no one else does. Long before she died I felt her with me every time I made her tomato gravy or saw an older couple arguing with each other. When I read a love story I think of those letters she kept, sent long after she and my grandfather wed.
She has been gone for years, really. She’s been with me all that time, too. I watched her die but I also got to see her live. I knew her as my grandmother but also as a woman.
I was lucky.
My Grandma Rae died last week.