Andra Watkins is fresh-faced, gentle, and kind. I’d already read her memoir Not Without My Father: One Woman’s 444-Mile Walk of the Natchez Trace when I met her at BlogU ’15. She brought a bottle of Blenheim’s famous hot ginger ale to my room and gave me her autograph, and she encouraged me to participate in her Make a Memory campaign by spending time with someone I loved. I started to cry when I told her that my estranged grandmother was in a nursing home in advanced stages of dementia, and that I never visited.
I resolved that this summer, I would visit. I’d had the idea before, two years ago. I decided I’d drive back to my hometown once a week, leave my infant son with my parents, and spend an hour or so at the nursing home, making memories.
I don’t know why I didn’t do it then. Part of me wanted to, and part of me didn’t. It was exactly how I felt today as I got into my car, except that the part of me that didn’t want to go was winning out. I could just go shopping instead, I thought, and no one would even know.
No, I had to do it. I’d promised Andra, even though I knew what she’d say: Don’t do it for me. Do it for yourself, so you don’t have regrets.
I think of Andra as I walk to the elevator. Perhaps it is too late not to have regrets. I already regret not visiting my grandmother during the whole decade she’s been in nursing care. I regret her aging, her dementia, the very passage of time. I regret that for my whole adulthood, our relationship has been forced, static, lifeless.
In some ways, I’m finished. I’ve been ready for her to die.
I feel a familiar rush of sadness when I see her. She is lying in bed with her eyes closed. She never wears her false teeth anymore and her lips are horribly sunken. I sit down at the side of her bed and put my hand on hers.
“I went to the bathroom, but I don’t know if I did it right,” comes a voice from the other side of the room.
I guess this is my grandmother’s roommate. I look over and smile at her. “I’m sure you did fine.”
“I mean, I’ve never seen one like that before,” she continues, not looking at me, talking to no one in particular. “I don’t know how it works.”
Nanny opens her eyes. She looks shocked, then smiles and says what she always says when she sees me. She calls me her name. “Juanita! This is such a nice surprise.” She hasn’t known my name in a long time, but I believe she knows who I am, because sometimes when she looks at me, her face fills with joy.
“How are you feeling?” I ask.
She says quite clearly, “Sick of shit.”
I giggle. Roommate is still rambling about whatever bathroom calamity she’s had.
Nanny seems to remember me as a very young adult. She asks if I have my own apartment, and where I’m living. I pull out a recent picture of Jack and show it to her, telling her I’m married and have a little boy now. She stares at the picture a long time, and her eyelids start to droop.
“I could go to sleep,” she says.
I tell her it’s OK and sit there, my head propped up on one arm and my other hand holding her hand. I look at her bulletin board full of pictures—my father with newborn Jack, me with toddler Jack, me as a young girl—and cry a little. This can’t be accomplishing anything. What kind of memory am I making? Does watching your beloved one drift off, holding her hand and crying, even count? I should have gone shopping. She might not even remember that I was there.
We spend the next few minutes like that, with her drifting in and out of awareness. When she is awake, she stares at me or asks me questions, like where I live, or where she lives, or if I know any of the nurses. Occasionally, like an oracle, she says something remarkably, unintentionally philosophical: “Which way do we go?” she asks once. And another time, “We’ve been here for so long. But it’s nice.” Then she drifts back to sleep. It’s obvious that she’s tired, that her body is shutting down. I want to know why she continues to live like this, why she can’t go out in a blaze of glory and be reborn, like a magnificent phoenix.
“If anybody ever needed anything,” her roommate declares, apparently over her bathroom calamity and on to a new topic, “I would do for them. I would find a way to do for them.”
Her life is so small and stunted, I think as I watch her sleep. God, everything back here is so small and stunted. When I was a kid, I thought it was the world. Now I have the feeling of being larger than life as I roll back through this absurdly small landscape. It’s not a feeling of triumph, but one of disorientation and sadness.
I do not always like to come home.
It appears that Nanny isn’t going to open her eyes anytime soon, so I lift my weight off the chair, ready to leave—and when I do, her eyes blink open.
“Aren’t you going to talk to me? Talk to me, Juanita.”
So I do. I tell her about when I was a child, and we would play restaurant and Tiddlywinks and Old Maid. As I talk, she stares at me as if from a deep chasm. As if I am speaking a foreign language. I can see her searching for meaning. Then she gets tired and closes her eyes again.
Roommate is looking into the distance. “I would always try to do for that person, if I could,” she says aloud.
On the way out, I want to hug the nurses and tell them they are good people, because I could never do the job they do. But I am crying, and I feel trapped, like in a recurring dream I have where I can’t find my way out of a hospital. I’m both ashamed and enormously relieved to walk out the main door, into sunlight and my terrible, terrible freedom.