“Hi,” whispers a petite, pajama-clad elderly woman. She is clutching a blonde-haired baby doll and rolling mindlessly down the spotless linoleum-tiled floor using her wheelchair.
I find myself slightly uncomfortable but manage to mumble a hello. The nursing home smells clean – an uncomfortable clean, a scent that seems to be hiding something ominous behind antiseptics. Snowdrop flowers decorate the wallpaper in the hallway and the paintings and décor lining the hall are nothing short of cheerful. Still, uneasiness wraps itself around me as I consider the men and women here who were once strong and sovereign but now necessitate sponge baths and foam lunch trays filled with semisolid foods; I suppose they are blissfully unaware. Shaking off my discomfort, I continue treading down the hall until I discover a door with an adjacent plaque listing the name, “Helen Goldsmith,” in cheery cursive handwriting.
I hardly recognize her, the grandma who used to be strong-willed to the point of hard-headedness is now conceding to the confines of a nursing home. Her once gray and white curly hair is flat and matted down. She is not dressed in a stiff, flower decorated jacket with one of her many ornamental pins but instead wears light-blue, fleece pajamas which have probably not been washed in days. I sit on the edge of her hospital-like bed and pat her hand. A smile emerges on her face but her eyes appear vacant. She may not know me in her mind but she knows me in her heart; even when she is afflicted with Alzheimer’s and perpetually unaware, her true personality and precious nature will persevere.
“Hi, Grandma!” Feigned enthusiasm is evident in my voice.
A wrinkly, veined hand pats mine. She is smiling, but only with her top teeth – for some reason she refuses to wear her bottom set of dentures, something I know she would never be caught without years ago.
I dab off a remnant of chocolate pudding from her chin and notice the foam tray that rests on the nightstand next to her bed; she has barely touched any of the food. I jokingly tell myself the bland, unsalted lima beans and Play-Doh-like mashed potatoes are not up to her standards – she used to be an avid cook. I can recall waking up in the morning at her house to the smell of fresh-baked rolls and crispy bacon. Sunlight would shine in to the bedroom and illuminate the intricate pattern of the bedspread and the delicate stitching of the pillows. My grandma’s comforting voice would echo down the hall and greet my ears. Eagerness would bloat my body and I would leap out of the sweet-smelling sheets and dash into the meager but love-filled kitchen where Grandma would envelope me in an emotional embrace.
I find myself shaken out of my daydream as she begins to mumble something about her mother visiting a few days ago, an obvious impossibility. I smile and nod anyway. Disbelief fills my mind as she rambles on about the past as if it were the present. Shock still electrocutes my body when I think about how she does not even know my name. In vain, I decide to try to evoke a memory or two, “Grandma, I’m Olivia! Cheryl’s daughter?”
She chuckles. “Of course I know that!”
Aware of the truth, I say nothing for a moment and then ask, “Do you know who I am?”
“Yes, I know who you are!” Her eyes light up in surprise at my doubt.
“What’s my name?”
She says nothing. I can see her thinking but her mind is as empty as a garden in the winter.
“Do you know my name?”
Her tiny mouth forms an “O” but still, she comes up short.
“I’m Olivia, Grandma! Do you remember when we would look for roly poly bugs? You would empty a black-walnut filled jar from the freezer, poke tiny holes in the top of the lid and then venture outside with me. You would gently pick up a soil-surrounded rock that had been resting against the red-brick walls of your home and my eyes would light up as the roly poly bugs appeared in masses. Giggling, I would select an armored bug or two and drop him in the gold-lidded jar. Then you would help me decorate his new home with leaves and dirt. I still look for those bugs sometimes but it isn’t as easy without you,” I pause. “Do you remember that, Grandma?”
She laughs and nods but her eyes seem blank. Still, I know somewhere in the recesses of her mind she is the grandma I knew before deterioration – the grandma who china-painted blooming poppies and sweet peas, made the warmest and gooiest no-bake cookies (treats my mom and I could never seem to replicate correctly at home), and was always filling a fuzzy pink bunny rabbit bank with spare change for me. She may not know me now but I will always know her, whether she is pruning her oasis of a garden or sleeping in a hospital bed.
We sit together for a while longer and I listen patiently to her confused chatter. I hand her a chewy candy or two (she always loved Modjeskas and savored any kind of licorice) and find myself having to remind her every few minutes that she is eating it. Leaving seems alright once she starts to drift off to sleep, tired from the slew of medications she swallows. I hug her thin figure and tenderly kiss her hollow cheek.
I am standing at the doorway, looking at her one more time. In my mind, it is only her body that remains here. More comfort comes to me when I consider that her soul is happy somewhere – a place where she can gossip with her friends while china-painting, tend to her own secret, limitless garden and maybe watch over me every once in a while. In this way, my memories of her and her sweet nature ultimately endure.
“I love you, Grandma.”
For a moment my Grandma is silent, the gears in her empty mind turning. Then, something seems to ignite a spark in her – her eyes light up. She is smiling like she used to, like she would when I popped open the screen door to her home and skipped inside for a visit. It’s quiet and calming, like a breeze in a field of flowers, but I hear her say it clearly, “I love you too.” She must be watching now.