I left my granny 11 months ago, to study abroad, with tears in our eyes. I remember her sitting every day watching me swim. She would smile, laugh and play with the dog.
I knew then I didn’t have much time left with the grandmother who had taught me how to make French toast, paper boats or how to be money-wise. Her neurologist claimed in eight months time, she wouldn’t recognise us. He explained to us her two cerebral hemispheres (logic vs. creative) were completely detached, making it impossible for her to decipher between her emotions and reasoning. There were also visible holes in her brain, shown up as grey patches on the MRI. She was officially diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.
At first, it was apparent in small things. She would forget where she placed her spectacles or that she hadn’t eaten that morning. She would confuse me with my mom or wake up shaken, believing her nightmare was real. This became more and more frightening, as she would accuse us of beating her or stealing her money. My once confident, stylish granny had turned into a skeletal, paranoid stranger.
I expected the worse. Every few months, I would visit my family and speak to her. Sometimes, she was quite alert, remembering things from my childhood. But, other times, she would speak of her youth with little sense. Suddenly, she was a mother to three sons who went to war. My mother is her only child, so this information fascinated me. It was like putting puzzle pieces together, only the pieces she had were slight versions of mine. She was confusing her sons with her three brother in-laws.
The trick to speaking to her is kindness and patience. This is extremely difficult, as it involves hours of repeating the same information and consoling her child-like spirit. She is afraid of everyone and everything.
Every time I visit, she smells different. One time, she smelt like mint and lavender. It turns out she was using the foot cream I gave to her for Christmas on her face. Her once beautiful ash brown hair is now straw-like and falling out. Bits of chipped toothpaste are found on her pillowcase. Toothpaste has her become her new shampoo.
She cries all the time now. Sometimes, she expresses herself through a few words “Father…dead.” I thought she was speaking of my grandfather and missed him. I showed a picture of him to confirm: “No, no! Who is that?” she snapped. She was talking of her father, who died in 1941. “He died yesterday…why oh why?” she sobs daily. It’s no use explaining to her when he died. So, I hold her and let her sob.
I use her for my photo portfolio. Her ageing skin fascinates me. It is creased in a perfect pattern, linking up around her thinning muscles. Her swollen feet speak of years of working hard since the age of 14. Her adult nappy was the hardest to photograph. She is a baby again. Once obsessed with bathroom hygiene, she can’t control her bladder anymore. Instead of changing nappies, she pulls out the cotton fluff and litters it over her bathroom floor. It amuses her.
For her, the hardest part to make peace with, in ageing, are her sagging breasts. They reach her waist now. The other night, she held them in the cup of her hands: “What are these for? I don’t remember what they are for!” I tell her they’ve done their job well in her life. She smiles, still confused. The next day we go bra shopping, but it’s completely useless: nothing fits perfectly. She’s still very picky. Whatever sort of fits is the wrong colour or texture.
I don’t know how much time I have left with her. At least, she can still express herself. At least she wakes up smiling. At least she can walk to the window to pat the dog.
Most of the time, she is just waiting. Waiting for the train that gave her purpose and took her to work every morning. Waiting for my grandfather, whom she loved to argue with, to call. Waiting for her father to show up at the door and take her far away. Or, waiting for us to start making sense.
Our words mean nothing now. I can tell her I love her and she’ll simply walk away. I can tell her we’ll go for coffee and she’ll change into her pyjamas.
Her family members overseas have stopped calling. It’s exhausting and frustrating speaking to her. She bends over to see what I’m typing. I try to tell her, but she walks away to check the door again. My words will never bring the escape she yearns for.