As a child, I attended an exclusive private school in a tony suburb of my hometown. There wasn’t much about it I loved. I was one of the single digit population of brown people in a lily white sea of affluence I was entirely unfamiliar with. And a clumsy brown girl with unruly curls, (too black for the black kids trying desperately to be less black and therefore less threatening, not well off enough to for color to not be an issue) there weren’t many places of refuge.

The silver lining was the days my grandma’s sky blue Bonneville would inch down the carpool driveway, knowing that her being there meant I’d get to hang out with her until it was time for my daddy to pick me up for his visitation weekend.

We’d sing (or more accurately she’d sing and I’d giggle), her voice full and lovely with just a twinge of smokiness from the cigarettes she smoked. There was a silly song about a bee. And one about a bunny. She’d buy me a coke and weather my insistent questions with patience and humor.

I don’t remember when or why she stopped, but I do remember missing her, even as it felt like a betrayal to my mama, to my maternal grandmother, to admit it.

I was in college before I really came to understand what a force my grandma was. A whip smart, steel eyed touchstone that raised five kids after her husband died too young while still managing to build a successful, meaningful career. She is lovely and crass, a combination we both share, and profoundly generous; a trait she has leaned into and I have built fortresses around after the jagged edges of life necessitated it.

My grandma has been retired for all the years I’ve been alive and the running joke became a kind of game of “Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?” On the rare occasion I came home from school, I was never sure I’d see her, as she spent the vast majority of her time on a plane to somewhere, more than likely to a casino not in the city where we lived. She spent almost thirty years the way you hope you get to spend retirement; traveling and indulging her whims, from gambling her money to painting her nails bright pink. When people shared tales of their aging grandparents- the ebbing sharpness, their losing their ability to see and hear and drive and live alone, eventually moved into a basement bedroom or shuffled off to some nondescript building named after a tree- it was foreign to me. At 86, my grandma was still driving, still traveling all over the country, still going to watch her beloved baseball team, still smoking and drinking Coors Lite, and stubbornly wiggling her jeweled, poppy pink fingers in the face of anyone who asked her when she would slow down.

And then suddenly she wasn’t.

I spent my birthday with her this year, by her bedside in a hospital, after she had a stroke. I sat there for hours, watching her swing from consciousness to slumber, repeating the things she couldn’t remember she said to me the last time she was awake, but smiling every time she recognized my face.

We talked about nothing. I pretended not to be alarmed at how much weight she’d lost when the nurse came in to change her. I waited patiently while my brilliant grandma struggled to search her muddy brain for basic words. I smiled thinly through the ice sliver of anxiety in my stomach at this familiar scene. I’d been here before and I said to myself what I wasn’t brave enough to say to anyone else; I could be about to lose her.

May brought a new job and a move back home, and a vow that I would not make the same mistake with her as I did my maternal grandmother before her.

I go see her as often as I can. I spend hours talking to her and laughing at her, fussing at her stubborn refusal to do the exercises her physical therapist gave her to do. We watch TV. And I wait patiently as her mind spins and whirs, as she plods through sentences she once would have skated over with aplomb. I listen intently to every random recollection, my heart heavy with the responsibility of possibly being the keeper of her memories if her long term memory goes hazy and less sharp around the edges the way her short term memory has. I spent a couple hundred dollars to get her great seats to go to her first baseball game in years. I travelled with her for Thanksgiving to spend with our family, watching her intently even as I mingled, coming when she called and hustling when she needed something.

But it kills me. It kills me. To watch my razor sharp, educator of a grandma struggle for words. To listen patiently as she repeats herself, or call her back repeatedly because she doesn’t remember she called me an hour ago. It kills me to watch her wry humor turned inwards on herself. It’s awful the way her freedom has been taken from her, suddenly and without warning. Mere months ago, while she might not have been running marathons she was certainly still getting around. It kills me to watch her struggle to take even a couple steps, aided by a walker she can’t stand. I hate to hear her apologize or thank me profusely when I have to help her to the bathroom or get dressed, as though she is a burden. It kills me to watch her slip away.

But still I come. I come sit with her and I call and make sure she knows that I love her and that she is more joy than she will ever be a burden, and I tell her she will be ok, and I will be ok and we will all be ok. I tell her how beautiful she is because she is still so lovely, and that I love her, wholly, deeply, as all-consumingly as I did as an awkward little brown girl for whom she was a daily refuge.

And I pray. I pray that she stays healthy and as well as she can be. I selfishly pray that I have many more years with her so she can see me indulge the wanderlust I inherited from her and fall in love the way she was with my grandfather and so she can sing the bunny song to my kids.

She gave me my first prayer rosary way back when, and taught me what saints to pray to and if I was as smart then as life has made me now, I would have guarded it, and her, far more fiercely.

3 thoughts on “Refuge

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