My grandmother now lives in a geriatric facility that specializes in Alzheimer’s. When I visit her, she’s parked in a sea of wheelchairs in a large common dining hall, with low ceilings and a large, cloudy fish-tank, and it reminds me of when I used to visit old age homes with my elementary school and sing to them from that odd, classic repertoire that appeals to both the very young and the very old. I pause as I enter, wondering if she’ll still recognize me. So far, she does. She wears a belt tying her to her wheelchair, because otherwise she’ll get up– and fall. The other day, she ripped up her belt, and when my mother arrived a few hours later, she told her frantically that it wasn’t her, but the rabbi in the long white coat. I arrive that evening, and I ask her how her day was, and she tells me they accused her of tearing up her belt, but no, it wasn’t her, not at all.
I sit beside her as she eats her dinner, and I fight back my anger at how she treats my mother; at how she treated her since she was a little girl; at how she’s treating her now, when all her defenses are down, and the speech flows uncensored. I watch her, struggling with her knife and fork, and I soften myself, speak to her gently, hold her hand. I see her, defenseless, in a country where she doesn’t speak the language, in a foreign environment; in this total loss of control; in this complete, absolute dependence. And I grasp for a love that’s big and generous and greater than me- greater than a tallying of accounts, that can contain my anger and resentment and the deep, century-old betrayal that quivers and quakes beneath my lineage.
I wait in the hallway as a nurse from a faraway country gets my grandmother ready for bed, part of me ashamed that I’m letting someone else do this- the dark, murky parts of caring for a loved one as they age. She comes out, and tells me I can go in now. I enter the room, with its two beds, and its drab curtains, and the armchair in the corner that recalls hospital waiting rooms, and I approach my grandmother lying silent and still in her bed with the guardrail lifted up, like a young child.
She’s wearing a sleeveless nightgown, and her upper arms are draped with skin that’s thin and droopy and translucent with age. Her dentures are out, and her lips suck inwards, distorting her jaw, and making her look like this picture of my great-grandmother that hung in my grandparents’ living room; the resemblance is striking, except that it’s my father’s side of the family, and I realize that in that picture my great-grandmother must not have had teeth.
“It’s too tight,” she says, pointing towards her back where her nightgown is all bunched up. I pull it down, and smooth it out, and she breathes a soft, heartbreaking merci.
“Je t’aime, Mami,” I whisper, kissing her forehead, kissing her cheeks, bringing the covers up to her chin. “Moi aussi,” she whispers, and my heart cracks open into a million pieces that shatter all over her, and fall into the crevices of the covers, into the folds of her skin draped thinly over her upper arms, into her eyes, glossy and light like shallow pools.
And when I leave, and exit the white gate, and wait for my brother to pick me up, in his black jeep, with the AC and music cranked up, and his slicked-back hair, I try, as best I can, to pull it back together. Because this is the reality of it: we will all die. And in the face of this- our mortality, our inevitable death, our fragility, our endless, life-long, heartbreaking need for each other- we must, somehow, live.
Evelyn Sharpe’s French Chocolate Cake
Makes one 9-inch round cake (serves 10)
1 pound bittersweet chocolate
10 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
Pinch of salt
1 tablespoon unbleached all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon sugar
4 eggs, separated
Unsweetened whipped cream (to serve)
1. Heat oven to 425 degrees. Line the base of an 9-inch springform pan with parchment paper.
2. Melt the chocolate gently in the top of a double boiler over hot, not boiling, water (or, alternatively, in the microwave).
3. Remove the melted chocolate from the heat and stir in the butter, flour and sugar. Beat the yolks lightly and gradually whisk into the chocolate mixture.
4. Beat the egg whites until they hold a definite shape but are not dry and fold into the chocolate mixture. The beaten egg whites should be folded smoothly, quickly and easily into the chocolate mixture. Pour into the prepared pan and bake for 15 minutes. Turn off the heat; open the oven door, leaving it ajar, and allow the cake to cool in the oven.
The cake is best served a little warm with unsweetened whipped cream.