y grandmother doesn’t answer the door. I knock again, louder this time. A couple years ago, I would have assumed she wasn’t there, and left. Today, though, I open the door and walk right in. The phrase walk in, however, doesn’t convey the trepidation I feel. It’s a strange thing to invade someone’s privacy.
My grandmother lives in a retirement apartment, which for her, has also shifted into an assisted living facility. The building is beautiful, something that pleases me when I visit. Her room is on the second floor, on a hall titled “Hollywood Boulevard.” She lives in the “Frank Sinatra” room.
When I enter, the blinds are drawn, the lights are off. It’s the middle of the afternoon, but my grandmother is sleeping. At least I hope she’s sleeping. She’s lying on her back, hands at her side, mouth drawn. She looks dead. “Nana,” I say, walking over to her bed. “Nana?” She sits up, disoriented.
When I was a child, I often woke to the sight of my grandmother’s face. She would sit on the edge of the couch and stare down at me until I woke with a jolt. “Rise and shine,” she would say cheerfully.
My grandmother couldn’t imagine sleeping the day away. She was a doer, a whirl of activity. She made enormous quantities of ceramics, which she foisted on whomever she could. The whole extended family was relieved when she switched to quilting. The quilts were wild, delicate affairs. She made them for all her children, then her grandchildren.
My grandmother channeled some of her energy into water aerobics. When my sister and I were teenagers, she would drag us to the pool where she was the instructor. As she shouted out numbers (“Ten more, nine more”), my sister and I would diligently do our scissor-kicks.
What I remember most, though, about those summers is playing games. My grandmother was never much for cooking, but she delighted in sitting across the table from someone, trying to find the best use for a P, a W, an L, two A’s, and a Q.
As I bend over my grandmother now, I decide to bring a game with me next time—something simple.
“Hi, Nana,” I say.
“Sari?” she says, and I’m as surprised as she is. While she has (so far) always recognized me, she is not so good with names. She sits up quickly and looks embarrassed to be caught sleeping. But she does not seem unhappy that I have barged into her room.
The first thing my grandmother wants to do is make her bed. It’s difficult for her to walk, but she pulls quite determinedly at her heavy quilt—one she has made, I see. I dash over to the other side and in my hurry do a haphazard job of bed-making. When I leave, my grandmother will say with some of her old zing, “I’d better go make my bed properly now.”
There’s not much conversation during our visit. I ask what she’s been up to. “Sleeping,” she says. She asks what I’ve been up to. “Teaching,” I say. When I expand on my answer, she loses interest. We look at photo albums together, at who she used to be.
At home, I will e-mail a friend. He will respond: “Alzheimer’s isn’t for wimps.”
While there is some uncertainty whether my grandmother is suffering from Alzheimer’s or dementia, it is clear that she has changed a lot in the last few years.
I leave feeling sad. I think of Solomon and how in Ecclesiastes he wrote: “Meaningless! Meaningless! . . . Everything is meaningless.”1
Who are you, I wonder, when you forget who you are? I once attended a poetry reading. The poet asked if anyone had a question, and no one raised their hand. “That’s OK,” the poet said. “None of you will remember this in 10 years.” I sat there thinking about all the conversations I had forgotten, all the classes, all the books, all the goofy moments.
Ecclesiastes is a kind of gloomy tome. Solomon doesn’t sugarcoat aging or the ephemeral nature of life. At the end of the book he addresses the questions he’s raised with a pithy resolution: “The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God, and keep his commandments; for that is the whole duty of everyone” (NRSV).2
My grandmother, I think, would have agreed.
2Eccl. 12:13. Bible texts credited to NRSV are from the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, copyright © 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. Used by permission.
Sari Fordham is an assistant professor at La Sierra University in Riverside, California. She teaches in the Department of English and Communication.