A true story inspired by my grandmother who suffered from Alzheimer's.
I crouch down, a smile glued to my face, my eyes locked on the snowy-haired woman sitting in the tattered armchair by the door. A voice on the other side of the room cries for help. A sleeping woman lounging on the sofa cradles a baby doll in her arms.
I pat the soft hand of my grandmother, her skin folding over her frail bones like unkempt laundry. Her sky blue eyes stare right through me.
“Hello,” she mimics. Her lips are gently curved into a smile, the skin at the corners of her eyes crinkling. Her two front teeth softly rest on her lower lip as I kneel beside her. Her thoughts are over my shoulder and out the door, but I still speak slowly into her ear as though she sees me.
“How are you today?”
She answers immediately, never willing to give up the act. And for the time being, neither will I. All too soon upon my exit of the nursing home, my boots pounding on caked and crusted snow, I won’t even be a tickle in her thoughts.
“Fine, fine. Just fine.”
It has been years since I’ve been a part of her life. And as I balance myself in this awkward, squatting position, familiar questions press against my mind. How can she stand to wake up each morning with no one? How can she let herself drift through daydreams, unable to greet the weathered and worn faces of those she’d once known? How is it she can fall asleep at night not knowing?
Visitors float and glide by her, but she is unbothered by it all. She looks at me as though blind and no matter how hard I might try to fall into her line of sight, I can never manage to hold her gaze.
“It was chilly out today.”
She makes a noise of agreement, but could not know. She hasn’t stepped into the crisp winter afternoon. The curtains hanging over her window remain drawn.
“Do you know what day it is today?” I swallow hard, fighting the surge of memories slamming against my skull. It’s a bittersweet taste of nostalgia that I must share alone.
“What?” she asks.
I smile, but it’s a small effort, and the pull of my lips is forced. “Christmas.”
It has been a while since my grandmother and I have spoken. Each time I visit, she looks into the face of a stranger—blue-grey eyes rimmed around the pupils with gold, freckles dotted over a pale nose—but she hasn’t seen her granddaughter in years.
Christmas was always her favorite holiday. Each December, the aroma of cinnamon and maple syrup wafted through her house while a miniature village with horse-drawn sleighs and snow-capped houses lived underneath the lowest branches of her Christmas tree. With marshmallow-stuffed cheeks and the glow from the fireplace on my arms, I’d fall asleep under a pillow of pine needles.
That was years ago, before we lost each other.
And the days all meshed as one, each Christmas a blur of red and green lights, sugar cookies, and tinsel.
As we sit together, the nursing home blends around us. With the reflection of Christmas tree lights in her eyes, she turns to me, her sky blue eyes lucid, frown lines crinkling around the corners of her mouth.
Her voice is clear and distinct. Not a question, not a hint of confusion in her tone. “I’m sorry.”
I suddenly jerk my head up. I hear nothing—not the soft hum of Holiday classics nor the aides chatting at the nurse’s station--nothing but her words.
“What?” I whisper, softly touching her shoulder.
She stares at her hands. “I’m sorry we never get to spend Christmas together anymore.”
I grab her arm excitedly and whisper in her ear, “What did you say?”
I finally coax her gaze up, but I can see it in her eyes.
She is already gone.
And that moment, like every moment before, is not even a memory.