She gave me a birthday card with some money three months before my birthday.
"This is in case I forget," she said with a wistful smile.
I held the card with the tulips embossed on the front and stared at the crinkly bills. This was too much. She'd never given me this much money for my birthday. Usually, I would get a five dollar bill or a ten. At most, a birthday might yield fifteen.
I held $80 in my hand. I couldn't accept it.
Love Always, Grandma Moor had been penned at the bottom of the card--right below the words: "To A Special Granddaughter." Her penmanship was tight, each letter exquisite in the precision of its loops and curves.
"It's for all the birthdays I won't remember," she said, her smile fixed.
She tried to seem strong, her dark brown eyes a little glazed, but she fought to be in the moment and aware. In one of her last precious moments of clarity, she wanted me to know how much she loved me and thought of me--even thought we both knew she would eventually forget me.
Henrietta Moor, my grandmother, suffered from dementia during the last few years of her life. She forgot how to do basic functions like balance a checkbook, bathe, tell time. More and more, she wanted to go home, to her childhood home, back to her father. She wanted away from the ever-confusing world of jumbled words and frustrating visits from people she knew she should know.
People used to say that I looked like Grandma Moor. We both had the same raven hair and coal black eyes, pale skin and ample noses. I'm not sure how else I resemble her. She passed away when I was in my mid-twenties. I was old enough to feel that loss, but I grieve her absence more now than I ever could've then. I know that she was a seamstress, loved to play games, had a wicked sense of humor, a way of smiling that put people at ease, and animals--from parakeets to cats--could be tamed by her gentle strokes and whispers.
Once, a few years ago now, I was teaching a class and stared up at the face of the clock. Everything inside me chilled. I could not tell what time it was. I squinted at the hands and kept confusing the second hand and big hand. I tried to blink this sudden confusion away and shake my head. My heart beat faster and my throat felt so dry. I have never forgotten how frightening it was to forget such an ordinary thing. How many years earlier did my grandmother's own deterioration begin? Did she first notice it in her thirties? Was she as paralyzed by the horror of it as I was?
I will always remember the morning of the Mother/Daughter Banquet at my church, possibly the last I attended, easily fifteen years ago now.
I will never forget seeing my grandmother leaning against the glass back doors of the church, staring out at the parking lot, or the field beyond. I wasn't sure. She was lost in her own mind.
She was waiting for me to come and pick her up. She was two hours early for the yearly brunch. She knew it was that morning and didn't want to miss it. The three of us had been attending it all of my life. She loved us so much that she would not even let her own mind stop her from being there.
We should've told her that we would pick her up, on our own way, but it hadn't crossed our minds. I don't recall what made my mother stop and wonder if Grandma was already at church. Maybe she called and received no answer--just a dial tone. I told Mom that I would go get Grandma while she finished getting ready, showering and baking her casserole.
My grandma's face lit up when she saw me get out of the car. She smiled and waved. I hurried through the raindrops of that dreary morning.
"Grandma, come on back to the house," I said, ignoring the weight of the sadness inside. I would cry many times later. The sight of her standing alone inside those doors, so eager to be there, feels too much to bear, a memory I cannot forget but hardly wish to remember.
I opened my umbrella and guided her to the car.
"I thought it started now," Grandma said with a chuckle. "I wondered why nobody was here yet. I thought maybe I had the wrong day."
She was trying to cover her own hurt and fear. I see that now, but I was too young to recognize it then.
"Well," I said. "It's easy to get confused now and then."
I wanted to put her at ease, to help her, to comfort her.
It was not long after that when the decision was made to admit Grandma to a nursing home, a place where she didn't have to worry what time it was anymore.
More and more, I stop and try to hear the sound of her voice in my memories. Pictures retain the features but not the expressions and mannerisms, those special movements that could only belong to her.
Is this what she felt when she woke and tried to remember that my Aunt Pat was her daughter? Was this fading away of memories what she experienced when she smiled at me with a vague recognition in her eyes? Did she know that one day I would struggle to remember her as much as she struggled to remember me?
What were the stories she told me about my older relatives? What was her favorite color? What did it feel like to hold her hand?
I don't want to ever forget.