Every week in third grade, we were assigned ten words to define. I was a smart girl but this in-class assignment took me longer than everybody else. We had big tan hardcover dictionaries, one per student, and the definitions were occasionally illustrated. I don’t remember what the pictures were anymore, but I remember that I was always drawn to the words melancholy and serendipity. I paid no attention to the correct pronunciation and for years, in my head, pronounced melancholy as I wrote the title of this blog and the other word as seRENda-pity. Confession: I still do.
I don’t know why, but my grandmother is heavy on my mind this morning, which could be the cause of my melancholy. She was my best friend when I was a child. Other kids ran down the street, screaming, laughing, shouting to each other. I cowered inside, hoping they wouldn’t notice me. Their presence was frightening and threatening. I spent every day after school with her and every weekend as well. I never questioned this, simply took it as my right. I belonged there.
I read quietly for hours. I’d read the newspaper, my books, my grandparent’s encyclopedias, and anything I could get my hands on. When I overheard my aunt say that a particular pop song referenced masturbation, I consulted with their medical dictionary. Same thing when I heard about homosexuality on a television program. I puzzled over the fact that homosexuality was considered a mental illness. I opened up their encyclopedias and read about computers taking up rooms and rooms when my parents presented me with my first computer, a Tandy. When I was in fifth grade and the Challenger exploded, I went straight to their encyclopedia to read that man aspired to one day land on the moon. The living room was a time machine.
My happiest moments were spent reading C.S. Lewis and listening to my grandmother bustling in the kitchen, the smell of dinner growing stronger and more tempting until she’d yell for us to come eat.
Things changed, quickly. I stopped spending weekends and after school with my grandparents. I was a teenager, I had a boyfriend, I got a job, I graduated high school and I moved across the United States. Years passed, I came back to Texas, fell in and out of love, and suddenly found myself pregnant and gravely ill. I stopped working and was eventually admitted to the hospital, where 29 weeks into my pregnancy, I heard the dreaded words,
“There’s no more amniotic fluid. You’ll be having a c-section. Now.”
My daughter survived and I brought her home shortly before her due date. Home was my mother’s house, as I had no money and couldn’t go get a job. My child was too delicate to be left in daycare.
My grandparents came to visit every day. My grandma was delighted with my daughter. Unfortunately, my grandmother had Alzheimer’s by this point. As my daughter grew strong and healthy, my grandma grew ever more forgetful. My family strongly hinted that I should take care of her and I flatly refused. Until the day I realized I was being a selfish twat. I got myself in order and went to work.
It was just as difficult as I’d imagined. One particularly bad day, I was at my grandmother’s cooking and the house seemed too quiet. I checked my toddler and found her happily eating glass Christmas ornaments. I scraped her mouth out with my fingers and rushed to the kitchen with her in my arms to turn off the stove. I was met with the horror of my grandmother, head back, taking a long satisfying chug of dish soap from the bottle. I took it away and explained what it was.
“But it has an apple on the bottle,” she protested.
I rinsed their mouths quickly and made a dash for the door to get my little one to the emergency room, grandma in tow. Luckily, my grandfather walked in. I filled him in on the previous two minutes and left with my daughter. To this day I’m not sure if I turned off the stove. The house is intact, so someone did. My daughter ended up fine, by the way.
Not every day was this horrifying. One day the three of us sat in the living room, now equipped with a television. My daughter was cranky and bored, my grandmother was unhappily asking the same question about every ninety seconds, and I felt like I was on the edge of a nervous breakdown. I got angry. The room was stale and oppressive, the walls were closing in, Alzheimer’s is a piece of shit disease. No.
I stood up and announced we were going for a ride. My daughter and grandmother looked up with interest. We never went for rides. We never did anything, it was too risky. My daughter actively sought out danger and danger actively sought out my grandma. But that day I didn’t give a fuck. Without so much as checking if anyone needed to go to the bathroom, we left.
I didn’t know where to go, so I drove aimlessly. Then, disregarding common sense, I bought us all enormous ice cream cones. I rolled down the windows a little and drove to the park.
This particular park is rather large. We drove through slowly, meandering along, until I noticed horses. I’m not sure if there was a livestock show or a rodeo that day, but there they were, tied up. I pulled up so that my grandma’s window was directly in front of one horse’s face, a couple of feet away. I wish I had the words to describe my grandmother’s expression. Her eyes lit up like a child’s and she quietly said she hadn’t seen horses in a very long time. She watched the horse and she was silent for once. She didn’t ask me the same question, over and over. She just watched with a smile on her face. The car was silent. I came out of a daydream to realize that both my child and grandmother had fallen asleep. I raised a hand of gratitude to the older man tending the horses and he solemnly waved back. Serendipity.
I cooked for my grandmother, then eventually had to feed her. I bathed and dressed her, changed her diapers. She looked up at me one day as I towel dried her hair and in a spell of lucidity said,
“I feel like a baby. I can’t dress myself.”
“You used to dress me when I was a baby. Now I’m doing it for you,” I replied.
She looked relieved and then smiled up at me. A smile so full of love and the brightest rays of light that even the memory blinds me and pulls tears from my eyes.
Alzheimer’s is cruel. The last words she ever said to me were, “Me duele.” (“It hurts.”) She was talking about her hands. They had begun to curl up and she could no longer move them. Thankfully she passed away, my mother holding her hand, days later.
She was my best childhood friend and the sweetest person I’ve ever known. I like to think she’s cooking somewhere, firm in the knowledge of how loved she is, calling happy little faces to the table.