(This piece was written for April Words3: Mountains and Valleys.)
She does better sleeping in the bedroom across the hall from mine. From there, she can use the old desktop computer to read the obituaries and scour the internet for breaking news until she gets too tired to keep her eyes open. I say scour loosely, of course. She can’t get very far with the parental controls. It drives her crazy, getting the message that a site has been blocked.The computer is old, I tell her. Someone else put those rules on there and I can’t get them off. I’ll talk to someone about it soon, when we have more money to fix it. Mercifully, that explanation works every time. But it doesn’t stop chaos from chattering away through her brain. I keep an eye on her through the open door. Terrorist attacks, car crashes, and natural disasters fill the monitor. I never fight with her about it.. The truth is, she probably won’t remember it by tomorrow, and chastising her may end with a door closing in my face.
I know from experience, that the anxiety will always find a new fixation, and we will start it all again anyway. As horrible as it sounds, she might as well fixate on a disaster that isn’t ripping apart her life so she doesn’t have to face her disease every waking moment.
She spends more time watching the computer screen than she does watching her soap opera, The Young and the Restless, which is on five times every week for one hour every day. A few months ago, I got my hands on some old recordings from the early 90s. Between the new episodes, I occasionally trick her into watching the reruns. Her eyes are glued to the characters, and it is the only time when she becomes distracted from all of the ways her brain is trying to suffocate her. These are the happiest moments, where the demons lurk in the shadows and wait their turn to play. Sometimes I like to picture this as my personal journey to Mordor. We go over the mountains of triumph and hold hands as we cross through the dark valleys in her memory together. While the disease erases precious things so often, like the memory of teaching me to read, or even the fact that I am her granddaughter, it hasn’t completely extinguished her fire.
On a better day, while she sipped on sweet tea in her rocker and watched a drama unfold before her on television, I suggested that Victor Newman should really end up with Jack Abbott. The writers had gone everywhere else. She whipped her head around at me, and her eyes were wide.
“Victor Newman does not go for both women and men. And if he does, then I’m getting to him before he spots your grandpa in heaven,” she quipped, moving one hand over her bouffant hairdo. “This is no competition for that shiny bald head.”
That sent us both into fits of giggles that brought tears to our eyes. We settled down, and her eyes went back to the screen.
I’m not sure what is worse anymore: when she forgets, or when she remembers. A few moments after our laughter died down, she wondered aloud where he was—not Victor Newman, of course—my grandfather.
The tears came back behind my eyes, and I was relieved that she didn’t turn to look at me. I cleared my throat and did what I do best. I lied.
Gesturing towards the television in front of us as if to indicate time by her soap opera, I replied, “It’s the middle of the day, Gran. He’s at work.”
She nodded, moving her rocking chair slowly back and forth. Never mind that we were not in her house, or that it was dark outside, or that he had been dead for five years. In the ground before he knew that she would grieve him anew almost every day for the rest of her life. By the time the episode ended, she wanted to know where she was, and why she couldn’t go home.
“I know you don’t think I can take care of myself, but I can,” she said to me, as I escorted her down the hall. I turned on the light in her room.
“I know you can,” I replied. “But it’s too late to go home now. You may as well get some sleep, and we can talk about it tomorrow.”
She nodded and walked to her bed, found her housecoat and slipped her arms through it.
“I’m just going to check the news first. Can you help me get this thing on?”
I sighed, and shuffled to the computer on the desk in the corner. The next morning, she woke and cried softly through dawn like she always does. She pulls herself together before she leaves the bedroom for breakfast. I don’t ask her why she cries, or even acknowledge it. Gran presents herself with an air of dignity that is a last little grasp she has on the life she led before her memory began to fail her, and her anxiety moved in to consume the rest of her waking hours. She still combs her hair. She still brushes her teeth. When we go out, she takes two hours to dress for the occasion, even if it’s just to get her hair reset.
When my mother or uncle call, they never believe me when I ask how she’s doing. Which is fair, because I never tell the truth.
“She’s fine,” I say. “We’re okay.”
“Miranda,” my mother says slowly, “she’s only going to get worse. We need to get her set up in a nursing home. You can’t spend the best years of your life taking care of her.”
Of course, what neither of us say, but both of us understand, is that the odds are not in our favor. One day, this will be our mountain to climb too. And yet, beneath shattered debris of her past, my grandmother is alive and she’s fighting. If she only has one memory left before it ends, I want it to be of me fearless by her side, ready to carry the light when she no longer can.