I normally don’t tell people my secret: I cry when my family members die, but I miss out on getting to know them while they are alive. At their funerals I stand alongside my father and mother, shake hands, and weakly smile as these age-stricken faces gleam at me. “You’ve grown so much!” they say through smiles to me before adding, “She is just gorgeous!” to my parents. I do not know these people: co-workers, neighbors, old friends, and even some family friends that I cannot recognize and have only ever heard stories about. I don’t recognize any of the hands that reach for mine or the comforting eyes gazing in my direction. But on the other hand, they remember me in a stroller, remember me wearing a little white bonnet, and remember me in my grandparents’ arms.
Right now, my grandmother is dying of lung cancer and a brain tumor. She is 82 years old and I don’t even remember her maiden name. She is my last living grandparent and even after feeling like I cheated myself out of relationships with my three other grandparents, I allowed my relationship with her to dwindle just like the others. Every other weekend this past summer my mother brought her to stay at our house for the weekend to stay with us. I was never appreciative of the time or amused by her company. I allowed myself to feel bothered by her constant repetitions, same questions, and her forgetfulness.
Memory loss runs in our family, so it was never any surprise that my grand mom asked me how I liked school more than once during each visit, and it wasn’t unexpected that she would constantly remind my mother to watch out for the dog when she walked, because she is little and we will step on her. My grandmother has Alzheimer’s and I have no patience. This is what caused much of my frustration during my grandmother’s visits. As the disease took over her, she began forgetting my age, where I was going to school, and most recently who I am.
The memories that I still have of her go back to my childhood. Spending the day at grand mom’s house was a treat: all the chocolate milk I wanted, all the toast I could eat, and nine times out of ten a trip to the mall by her house to pick up a new volume of my favorite book series, The Magic Tree House. She would let me sit in her favorite reclining chair and read the books we purchased while blowing bubbles in another glass of chocolate milk until my mom would pick me up when she was through with her work day. I didn’t need patience back then. Being eight years old, grand mom’s house was the best place to spend the day because she made sure to spoil me.
I remember going into her closet one day when playing dress up in all of her old dresses, robes, and high heels, and finding a large grey box on the floor. I immediately needed to know what was inside so I used all my elementary monkey-bar strength to pull the heavy box out from the coat tails and sparkly hems of the cocktail gowns. I ran into the living room of her small, one-floor rancher and squealed for her help in the bedroom. When she emerged from the kitchen with a drying rag, wiping her hands of the dish water, I replaced the rag with my small, pudgy fingers and guided her into the back room. I sat down directly in front of the mystery box and asked what was inside. She didn’t say anything, but she unclamped the lid from either side and lifted the green plastic skyward: my eyes widened at the sight of my first typewriter. I didn’t know how to use it but it only took my grandmother five minutes, a stack of blank, white paper, and a small bottle of white-out to show me the magic of this contraption. This is where I wrote my first story. I went home that day and told my mom that I wanted a typewriter for Christmas.
I’m pretty sure that typewriter is long gone, as are the days of endless chocolate milk and adventures in an imaginary tree house, but my memory of days like that hold a permanent place in my heart. I can’t say that my grandmother would remember something like this, but it’s this nostalgia that makes me wish I had continued to build memories as I aged. As I grew up and my grandparents grew older, I spent less time in their houses and presence. I have never felt confident in my relationships with them the way that I have seen other children with their grandparents.
My grandfather died last May. He spent the six months leading up to his death on bed rest in our dining-room-turned-bedroom right off of our kitchen. I don’t even know his birthday. I only saw the pain and stress that the situation caused; I never focused on the opportunity that it gave me to spend more time with him. I avoided his room when I was home alone and rarely went in to see him the way I should have. The morning he passed away, I cried. I cried up until the funeral and that day in the cemetery I cried holding my father’s hand while they lowered him into the ground.
I still am not sure if I was crying more at his death, or for the fact that I allowed him to pass away without giving him a chance to know me and I, him. I have always felt that I have kept myself from forming a successful relationship with my grandparents, but have never given myself the chance to fix that. I’ve come full circle yet again: waiting until the last minute to realize that time has run out. I don’t tell people that my secret is feeling like a failure. I don’t tell anyone that I wonder if my family knows I love them, because I missed too many chances to tell them myself.