We arrived at her bedside, spoke into her ear.
“Charlotte is here,” my mother said loudly.
She opened her eyes, closed them, her lids heavy.
My father stepped up, announced: “C’est Devy”.
She opened her eyes, startled.
During the day, she tossed and turned, the antibiotics coursing through her veins. Her kidneys were giving way, her lungs closely following suit.
She called: Papa! Papa! Papa!
Her father loomed large in her consciousness, three quarters of a century after his own death. I wonder if it was the ocean view in her last apartment that brought it all back, images of her Marine father drifting back to shore, lacing themselves into the present, confusing her.
“Listen: you are not yourself, you are crowds of others, you are as leaky a vessel as was ever made, you have spent vast amounts of your life as someone else, as people who died long ago, as people who never lived, as strangers you never met. The usual I we are given has all the tidy containment of the kind of character the realist novel specializes in and none of the porousness of our every waking moment, the loose threads, the strange dreams, the forgettings and misrememberings, the portions of a life lived through others’ stories, the incoherence and inconsistency, the pantheon of dei ex machina and the companionability of ghosts. There are other ways of telling.”
I wonder about the way we inhabit others; the way we enter and haunt them; and drift in and out of their consciousness, of their dreams, of their reality. The way they drift in and out of our reality.
The stories my grandmother told changed as her sickness spread; the stories I told changed too.
In the past year, it seemed like she was becoming more and more unanchored, as if her soul was already beginning to drift away.
Her stories became confused, tangled; reality and fiction whirled around in her mind, indistinguishable. Dream and fact: the words left her lips with the same cadence.
How much can we really distinguish between dream and fact, anyway? How clear are our narratives? How grounded in reality? How impermeable?
How susceptible are we to these stories we hear from birth? These stories transmitted through generations; through birth and blood and proximity; through anger bouncing off hallways, disappointment carved deep into bones.
I keep unearthing things from her narrative that I’ve been repeating in mine.
My mother was the object of her aggression, of her anger, of her violence- that much didn’t change; what she had transmitted to her subconsciously throughout her life grew tentacles, lashed out violently.
I struggled to love this woman despite the way she treated my mother; despite the way her disappointment in having birthed three daughters and no sons hovered thickly in the backstage of my life. Despite the way it affected my mother’s relationship to me, her only daughter; which, in turn, affected my relationship to myself; as a woman, as a daughter, as a potential mother.
What does it mean to be born female to a mother who was told her entire life that she hadn’t been desired because she was female? Whose name was picked off a calendar marked with the names of saints. Oh, it’s Monday: Evelyne.
I grasped for a love that bypassed all of that; that enfolded and enclosed and wrapped up all of these complexities; and it was only when Alzheimer’s crept up on her that I was able to find it. It brought down the walls, made her vulnerable, made it all somehow excusable, forgivable.
When I sang to her at her deathbed, I wasn’t singing to the woman who had a full career. Who had ambitions and strength and endurance that I can barely fathom. I was singing to my grandmother, her skin thin and wrinkled by time, scared and confused and lost, who carried her fears in her eyes, like a child.
A few weeks before, I had taken her to an afternoon session at a community centre for French-speakers with Alzheimer’s.
When I met her there her eyes were dripping with tears.
“What’s wrong, Mamie?” I asked softly, wiping her tears with the tips of my fingers.
“I don’t know,” she said, “I don’t know”.
I leaned down to her, whispered in her ear, pushed her wheelchair into the communal room; pulled up a chair by her side.
Her eyes were watery and light; tears fell from them slowly.
“Mamie,” I said, “Mamie, what’s going on?”
“Je ne sais pas”.
I placed her hand on the table, stroked it gently.
She said: “You’ve brought me to a monastery to die”.
I was going to walk her in, and then return to pick her up, but I couldn’t leave her. When I stepped out for a bit, I sat down on a nearby bench, and started sobbing. It felt like I had been punched hard in the gut; all of my breath knocked out of me.
I had to cram my three meetings into the hour I had left before picking her back up.
Is that what it all comes down to? How we manage to function, to do the ordinary, in this midst of all of this heartbreak; in the midst of lives falling apart around us; lives disintegrating; in the face of disaster; in the face of how futile our struggles seem; how endless; how pointless; how fleeting.
Later, I brought her back to the old age home, and wheeled her into her room. She said: “You can go now”.
“You sure you don’t want me to wait for you to be in bed?”
“No,” she said. “Go home”.
And then: “Merci”.
And when she said merci, her eyes lit up, and she exhaled it softly like a gift I could carry away, like a balloon on a string.
I went on a date with the tall, handsome man I was seeing, and then came back to the hospital. It was nearing midnight and the stairwell was dark and the nurses were surprised to see me.
I pulled a chair up close to her bed, and stroked her hand.
She opened her eyes.
I said: “Ca va, Mamie?”
She said: “Ca va”.
I said: “Do you need anything?”
She said: “No”.
I said: “Are you hurting?”
She said: “No”.
I said: “Je t’aime, Je t’aime, Je t’aime”.
She closed her eyes, whispered: “Je t’aime, Je t’aime, Je t’aime”.
In her last months she wore shoes that pinched her toes, choosing them again and again every morning, even though the nurses protested that they were hurting her feet. She was wearing pearly pink nail polish when she arrived in the hospital. As she lay unconscious, I removed it with cotton balls from the nurses’ cart; it removed mine too, smearing red all over my fingers.
We spent part of our honeymoon in her tiny apartment in the center of paris, a stone’s throw away from the Eiffel Tower. I wondered at how she had crammed three daughters and her mother-in-law there, I swept the kitchen and one of the boards came loose, revealing a stash of alcohol.
My grandmother had an endearing soft spot for sweets: when you brought her a treat, her hands would close over it like an eager child. Once, my mother gave me a perfectly ripe persimmon to bring to her. I sat with her while she ate dinner, and then, cut into the persimmon, its flesh yielding with a pop, the juices running.
“What is this fruit?” She said, her eyes glimmering. “How did you find it?”
We gathered together in the days after her death, my parents’ house filling with family, the wooden floors sighing and creaking. We gathered in the kitchen talking, lingered in bedrooms whispering- stories about her life, stories about our lives.
What does it mean to lose an elder? A tangible part of the past? What does it mean when we lose a voice that used to tell stories about us? About our past? About where we come from?
The past seems to float away more now; to be unanchored; to come loose.
“Who drinks your tears, who has your wings, who hears your story?” *
*P.S. The day of my grandmother’s funeral, I opened a book that I had purchased a while ago, when strings of beautiful words from it were quoted on two blogs I love (actually, the same paragraph I quoted towards the top of this post). I had no idea what the book was about. In the first few sentences the writer makes it clear that it’s about her relationship with her mother who suffered from Alzheimer’s. I was so grateful for the coincidence; for the way things have of falling into place.
P.P.S. I’ve missed you. We have so much to catch up on. I moved! I turned 30! (Also: I went to Paris, where I proceeded to have a meltdown on every street corner. Life, man. It’s no joke.) I wanted to write a post that would settle us back in together, a virtual coffee-date, but this was ready, and I kept on postponing it for later, but in the meantime wasn’t writing much. So I’m letting this go, and soon, hopefully, will write more. Until then, xoxo. -Charlotte
From Heidi Swanson’s 101 Cookbooks (adapted from her friend Lanha)
Makes 2 -3 dozen regular madeleines.
1 1/2 sticks unsalted butter (6 oz/ 170 grams)
2 tablespoons softened unsalted butter (for greasing pan)
3/4 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
4 large eggs
a pinch fine-grain sea salt
2/3 cups sugar
zest of one large lemon
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
a bit of extra flour for dusting baking pan
Special equipment: A madeleine baking pan
Preheat oven to 350F/180C.
Melt the butter in a small pot over medium heat until it’s brown and smells nutty, about 20 minutes. Strain (using a paper towel over a mesh strainer); leaving the solids behind. Allow the butter to cool to room temperature.
Meanwhile, use the remaining 2 tablespoons of butter to grease the madeleine molds, making sure to get all of the ridges. Dust with flour and invert the pan tapping out excess flour.
Place the eggs with the salt in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with a whisk attachment. Whip on high speed until the eggs thicken and double or triple in volume, approximately 3 minutes. Continue mixing on high speed, and gradually add the sugar. Whip for 2 minutes or until mixture is thick and ribbony. Using a spatula, fold in the lemon zest and vanilla.
Sprinkle the flour on top of the egg batter, and gently fold in. Next fold in the butter mixture, just until incorporated.
Spoon the batter into the molds, filling each mold 2/3 -3/4 full. (Heidi recommends using a small cup filled with batter).
Bake the madeleines for 12 – 14 minutes (7-10 minutes for smaller cookies), or until the edges of the madeleines are golden brown. Remove from oven and unmold immediately. Cool on racks and dust with powdered sugar.