Maria was born on a sunny Thursday afternoon in September. The midwife said she was of average length and weight. Her head was covered in thick dark hair, prompting comparisons to her father, and her eyes were long slits, clearly inherited from her mother. When she opened them she stared around, arching her small neck in different directions, confused by the shapes and sounds that swirled around her.
Soon after, Maria was clothed in yellow pajamas, complete with a small cap tied beneath her tiny chin, and bundled into warm blankets. As she lay there sleeping, with a mysterious and yet knowing smile on her tiny red lips, I took a photo with my digital camera to send to my family back in the US.
Three weeks later I showed the photo to my grandmother Margaret in an assisted living facility. This was after I reintroduced myself to her. Grandma is almost 93 years old, you see, and she doesn’t remember who I am anymore, at least most of the time.
“And you? Who are you?” These were the words she greeted me with as I slid into a chair across from her in a brightly lit kitchen. Just feet away more than a dozen ancient men and women, half of them in wheelchairs, sat murmuring to themselves, their eyes transfixed on a reality TV show beamed from a giant screen suspended on the wall.
“I’m your grandson,” I told her. “Justin.”
Grandma seemed to recognize the name. “Oh, Justin, that’s right,” she said slowly. “Well, I sure am surprised to see you.”
I would have felt bad to hear those words, as if I had abandoned her by moving to Europe, if I hadn’t sat before her at the same table only a week before. But Grandma can’t remember that. Sometimes she doesn’t know that she is in Assisted Living. She thinks that she is at a restaurant or at home. That’s why she is in the dementia ward. According to the ward psychologist, Grandma is convinced it’s still 1989.
It is hard to grasp that this is the same woman who was still fairly coherent less than a year ago. She was a little slow, but she could recall the events of yesteryear with startling precision. I asked my father when she started to lose it. “Sometime in the spring,” he shrugged. Grandma used to be so proud of her age too. “I love to tell people I was born in 1918,” she would say, “just to see the looks on their faces. Their eyes bulge when they hear it. I get a kick out of that.”
“Do you know who was president when you were born?” I asked her from across the table.
“Hmm, let me think,” she responded, her veiny hands folded before her. I waited for an answer, but one never came.
“Woodrow Wilson,” I said.
“Oh, that’s right,” she scratched her head, as if she had once heard the name.
Grandma is actually one of the most lucid residents of the dementia ward. The first time I went to see her, another gray-haired woman in a lime green jumpsuit went bananas over seating arrangements, crying, “I sit here, you sit there,” over and over again and nodding her head, until I stepped in and pushed her into her seat, saying, “That’s right, you sit in this chair right here, and my grandmother sits in that chair over there.” “See what I mean!” the crazy lady exclaimed, still bobbing her head. “I sit here, you sit there. I sit here, you sit there.” She looked up at me. “He gives us permission!”
The last time I went to visit here, we were joined by another old woman across the table with thick white hair and big brown eyes. “Where do you live?” she whispered to us. “New York,” I answered. “Do you have a car?” she asked. “Yeah.” “Do you think you could give me a ride home? Are you going to Long Island?” she pressed on further. Then my father interjected, “No, we’re not going to Long Island, we’re going to Florida today.” “Florida?” the old woman snapped her fingers in disappointment. “But I need to go to Long Island,” she leaned in again. “Do you think you could give me a ride?”
Just then another younger woman with brown hair approached me, wringing her hands, her eyes swimming in her head. “Mister, mister, can you help me? I just went to the bathroom and … and I did a job in there, but now I don’t know where to go,” she fretted. “Please help me, mister,” she whimpered as if she was about to cry. “I don’t know where I am!”
“If I ever get to this point, where I am in one of these places, just shoot me,” my father said and shook his head as we drove home. “I’m serious. I’ll get the shotgun. I’ll write it into my will.”
“I feel so bad for her,” I told him. “She’s in there with all those crazy people. Can you believe that’s your mother? She barely recognizes us.”
“Justin, she’s almost 93 years old,” he said, running his fingers through his thinning hair. “It will happen to me, it will happen to you,” he sighed. “It will happen to everybody.”