It started with forgetfulness. Forgetting where she had put things. Forgetting what she had already bought at the grocery store. You would open the fridge and find 18 cartons of orange juice; her cupboards were filled with packages of Pepperidge Farm chocolate chip cookies. The nature of dementia is rather mysterious, and works in different ways for different people. Eventually, dementia began to soften Nana. The things that had previous made her uptight and nervous weren't making her uptight or nervous anymore. She relaxed. Rather than fixate on the smaller discomforts and inconveniences, she would laugh it off or not notice at all.
In 2008, my mom moved her into an assisted living community. The Dementia Ward had heavy latched doors that would sound an alarm if you went through them without notifying a staff member.
The day came when Nana no longer knew who I was. She started to ask where her parents were, and asked the same questions over and over again. Some days, I was able to roll with it. I would tell her again and again who I was. She would ask where her parents are. I would usually tell her that they would be back soon. Occasionally I would say I didn't know. Once I told her they had died a long time ago. Other days, I would get irritated with her, unable to stand the smells and sights of the Dementia Ward. I would leave in a hurry, cursing at myself for my impatience.
"I'm your granddaughter, Sasha. Your daughter Pat's daughter."
"Oh you are? That's nice."
She would smile while I hugged her. She would usually say at some point, "You're my sweetie."
Somewhere she knew me. In a way I didn't understand. She may have lost the names and the details like where she was in time and space...but she seemed to still understand that the two strange women who came to visit her were her family. She didn’t question it. She always believed us.
The last time I saw Nana, her breath rattled through her chest, a bird trying to get out of it’s cage. She wasn’t conscious, but she wasn’t unconscious either. She was there, below the surface. Her mouth opened, as if to speak, her eyebrows raised. Her left hand lifted from its clasped position on her belly and swayed in the air, as if she was listening to music, a composer to her orchestra. Her face shifted through expressions of pain and grief, of confusion and something that resembled awe. She was in conversation, the sounds coming from deep in her throat, like the buzz of a radio turned down low. I watched as my mom combed through her mother’s hair. We stood on either side of her, daughter and granddaughter, and whispered our gratitude and love into her ears, hands on hers.
I was three hours from home, at a gas station in Lost Hills when my mom called. As I sped home, I tried to make peace with the fact that I wasn't there when she died, that I had left Texas early to miss her by three hours. When I arrived at midnight, everything happened so fast. I touched my warm hand to her cold forehead. I held her limp hands. I stared at her body through the dark, still and so quiet. My mom and I held each other and cried.
Nana’s only request had been that her ashes be mixed with Grandpa’s. My mom didn’t like the idea of keeping the ashes contained; we both wanted to release them. The question was where. Nana and Grandpa hadn’t traveled much in their lives, but my mom remembered a story Nana had told her, about how she and Grandpa had gone to Hawaii together, on a rare vacation. They had had such a wonderful time, they promised each other they would return. They even shook on it.
But they never did go back. So in the spring, my mom dad and I hopped on a plane, and we brought them back to Hawaii.