“So there is a girl sleeping in the front room,” I hear my grandmother whisper to my grandfather. “Did you know that?”
I listen through a cracked door. She has just said goodnight to me very warmly, despite the fact that I am mostly a stranger to her these days. The room I am staying in is a blank walled cube with a vaulted ceiling and three big windows. In the mornings I wake when the sun comes in, when it is quiet and bright. The shape of the space reminds me of a hamster carrying crate, the cardboard kind you’d get at a pet store. Four straight walls, a milk carton style top. The ever present sense of fascination and fear I feel while staying in this room makes me feel a strange kinship with those small furry creatures. Bewildered. Alert. In this house I feel wonder at all the new things I see, and also a heart pounding anxiety in facing the unknown.
My grandparents both have Alzheimer’s Disease. My grandmother is further along than my grandfather. I have recently been recruited to spend weekends with them so their regular home health aide can take time off. Their regular caregiver is a beautiful woman who moves through their home with grace and kindness, who tiptoes through the land mines of potential conflict as though it were her sixth sense. Instead of correcting, she redirects. Instead of asking “don’t you remember?” she slips into their world and accepts their state of being. This is only my second weekend, and so far I have stepped on plenty of land mines. I have, for example, identified myself as their granddaughter, to which they say, defensively: Of course you are, we know that! Now I’ve learned to say it less directly, more casually. And I usually add: Well, you have so many, it’s hard to keep track of us all. A concession which they gladly take.
Food is also land mine. What to eat, when to eat, where to eat. Too many questions and decisions, too much room for confusion. Long menus with complicated descriptions are overwhelming, and so it helps to pose two options. Would you like the chicken, or the pasta? Because one of those is what you usually get. These are key words and phrasing. You usually do this, so does that sound good? The answer is always: Yes, I will do what I usually do.
Last Saturday morning we had breakfast at home. I made french toast—my favorite childhood breakfast—then arranged pieces of cut up fruit into little bowls and set them at the table next to two small plastic boxes of pills. The next morning I made “sunny side up” eggs, also an old favorite. Each morning I feel like I’m entering into a new world where there are new social codes, new conventions, new people. Our one moor, the one common thing we have to keep us from drifting apart, is food. As volatile as it can be, it is also our touchstone.
As we are finishing breakfast, we talk of lunch. Then we talk of which day this is, we talk of the weather, we talk of the newspaper (which one of us will read out loud, sometimes going into imagined stories of the people in the photos on the front page.) But it always comes back to food. Well, we just had breakfast, so what is for lunch? Breakfast then lunch then dinner — a sequence of time based actions that is retained. I think talking of food is also comforting because it is a ritual, a measurement of time. Our day is held up by meals. When do you want to have dinner? My grandmother asks. We could eat at five, would that be ok? I will say, repeating this answer to a series of questions new to her, but the same to me.
When I was little I remember standing on my tiptoes in my grandmother’s kitchen and reaching my hand into the wooden bread box on the counter top. I must have been very small, because I clearly remember the discomfort, as I reached, of my armpit digging into the edge of the counter. But it was worth it. If I were lucky, I’d come out grasping a handful of Starbursts. I would separate the pinks from the rest and squirrel away my cache in my pocket, saving those cherished pale beauties for last. I would sometimes mould many flavors in to one pastel blob, rolling and kneading the hardened corn syrup into a sticky ball, which I would later nibble, pretending it was a special kind of apple.
That breadbox is on their counter still, but I’ve not been able to open it since being here. It’s as if opening that box and finding no Starbursts would mean something. That my grandparents, as I had known them in my youth, are lost forever? That my happiness is no longer so easily accessed, that my inner life is now more bland? That we’ve lost the time of tiptoes and reaching? Yes, maybe all of the above.
Still, I stay with them in their kitchen and make them the breakfasts of my childhood, pretending that those french toasts and sunny side up eggs can link our two worlds and the past to the present. Maybe next weekend I will buy some Starbursts to hide in the old breadbox. I entertain the idea of catching glimpses of pink wax wrappers beneath loaves of brown bread. I know that a gesture like that won’t make my grandparents feel any less lost or confused. It won’t make me less worried for them. It won’t bind my shattered heart, which breaks, each day, into smaller and smaller pieces as I brush my grandmother’s hair, hold her hand, fold her clothes, paint her nails. But I will do it anyway. I will do what I usually do. I will gesture, reach, and imagine. Just like I will say to my grandmother, for the fifth or sixth time in a row, We could eat at five, would that be ok?
Yes, she will say, that will be fine.