Lost in Time and Space
I remember a story my Nana would tell whenever my extended family was together. The story was a moment lost in time that she could call upon. She would remember how when my mother asked her to watch Zach -- now thirteen -- when he was two or three years old. About an hour into babysitting, Nana realized she could no longer hear Zach. My aunt who lived with her scoured the neighborhood, wondering how in the world a baby so young could get so far.
Nana was beginning to accept that he was no longer in the house. Then suddenly, when nothing made sense anymore and all hope was lost, my brother appeared under the table. Nana remembered being scared by how easily Zach disappeared when the whole time he was right there.
As my Nana lost more of her memory, and ultimately herself, she began to mimic Zach in this story: lost and unreachable, even when she was right in front of me.
The Nana I knew was not her true self. She had been succumbing to the evils of Alzheimer's from the first day I met her to the last day of her life. I saw her lose more and more of herself, until she no longer remembered my face. She would get scared when we were alone together, her eyes searching for my aunt.
Nana died three years ago, leaving me and my two little brothers, Hudson and Zach, lost without clarity in grief. My dad, her son, was the last of four kids and was a mistake. His mother struggled with fertility, and took pills that caused her to have four babies one year and a day apart. She was no longer taking the pills when six years later, my father was conceived.
By the time I got to have my dad’s parents as grandparents, my cousins had had around fifteen years with them. Anna and Nina, my cousins, would eventually tell me stories about cooking with Nana and about how she had wanted to be a fashion designer until life got in the way. I heard she was artistic; I heard she ended up working at a bank, teaching programs she already knew to all the men.
I never got to fully experience Nana’s heart, mind, or cooking. When I was younger, my family would visit Nana and Papa in Florida. We would spend all day making and then frying dough, gently rolling the hot balls in cinnamon and sugar. She would make the dough by scratch the night before, so that there would not be any wait time. Nana was so patient and careful with me. I remember I could not reach the counter, so all I could do was watch in awe as she delicately dropped each piece of rounded dough into the hot oil. She had a contagious spirit of compassion, a mother through and through. She loved us for the small amount of time she could know us.
At her funeral in December, I felt her absence in my life. But, I had been feeling that she was gone for a while already. I was lost sitting in the funeral pew as my cousins walked up one by one to read. When I went up, I was not crying. My parents and extended family thanked me for being able to compose myself, saying Nana would have preferred that. But in reality, I could not form tears. I felt like I had not known this woman, which made me ashamed for not properly reacting to her death.
Grief has been a confusing journey. When Nana died, I did grieve, and I have continued to do so. But I grieve for what I missed out on. Nana never saw me graduate high school, never even saw Hudson leave middle school, and Zach was lost in time and space. We were the forgotten grandchildren.
I am jealous. I am jealous of everyone who spent time with her before she was ill. I’m jealous of the stories my cousins will forever carry with them. I wanted more time with who my Nana really was. I wanted more than retold memories. I don’t want to be told I share many characteristics -- patience, heart, passion, humor, the way my foot bounces up and down just like hers did -- with her, I want to see the resemblance for myself.
I am jealous that people got to know a vivid, alive, empowered woman who I know would have inspired me. Now, I try to make a Nana whom I never really knew, proud -- my family keeps telling me she would be. I can only look into myself to learn more about who she was, who I want her to be, who I was told she had been.
Grief is hard to manage, but it is even harder when you don’t feel anything. Or at least don’t know what to feel. I’m relatively unable to sustain the feeling of sadness without becoming overwhelmed. And that’s lead me to purposely erase people from my memory -- like my Papa, like my “friends” from high school, like the boy I used to like. I push their stories out of my mind so I will never remember how happy we used to be.
I need to fight back against this fear and reach out to those I love, those I miss, and those who deserve to be forgiven. In the blink of an eye, time will take control and begin erasing their memories too. When people become shells of themselves, it is more important to be able to grieve than to wish you could.
I think about Nana a lot now, and feel closer to her than when she was physically here. She often visits me in dreams. The first visit came before I left for my freshman year of college. She was vivid and alive, looking at me while she silently sat on a couch. Her piercing stare told me she was proud, she was watching, she was here with me.
I woke up crying, and rushed to tell my dad -- hoping he could also find some solace in her visit.
I know I should visit my Papa more. I think about him a lot, especially when I am in Rochester, where with Nana he raised my dad and four siblings. I think about how he is all alone in the nursing home. He doesn’t remember much of who I am, either, and sometimes I think he kind of flirts with me (which is uncomfortable).
Alzheimer's enables grief because it leaves the shell of the person you love drift in space. The disease picks apart memories until only a skeleton remains. I can look back through photos where Nana’s face is young and alight. She feels real and sturdy, not like the Nana I saw falling to pieces in front of me. It turns out grief is much easier to handle when loved ones were already lost.
Later in her life, Nana began referring back to her Italian roots -- forgetting most of the English language. Nana returned to what was safe; she returned to her youth. My dad would tell her to eat, “mangiar,” whenever we visited and saw a frail figure in her place. Nana had fully relaxed into silence before our last Thanksgiving together.
I remember that Nana waited for her children and their families to visit one last time before she allowed herself to pass away. I remember she spent her final week in her bed at home. I remember Nana was silent in bed, looking up at us with her big eyes in childlike wonderment.
I gathered all the details I could then: her white blanket, her wispy hair atop a softened face, and her feet, cuddled in white socks, bouncing away underneath.