As a little girl, summer was perfection. Climbing a tree, reading a book all afternoon until eventually, someone came looking for me. Balancing my little tar-blackened feet on logs to cross the stream to the secret fort. Rollerskating and biking the streets before they became packed with folks coming home in the evening. Hanging out with a stack of records and the earphones, going through the pile and memorizing every little detail of the covers and credits while eating as many fudgesicles as I could sneak before my mom noticed.
Why the hell am I thinking about this? Is it because the weather’s been a little warmer than folks are used to here in Seattle? No, that’s not why. Two nights ago, in one of many sleepless hours, I realized that the hot weather was reminding me of the visit I made one summer to my Nana’s house.
My Nana (my mom’s mother) and I were, from the get-go, very different people. She was, and still is, one of the most unfailingly positive people I have ever met. I, on the other hand, was born with a little skepticism in my bones — something that’d I’d argue isn’t unhealthy in this day and age. Perhaps that little bit of static, that slight difference in character is what has never allowed us to extra close, I’m not really certain.
Anyway, one summer, when my parents went away on a camping trip with a few of their oldest friends, I was left to stay with Nana and my stepgrandfather. Without my trees, my records, my books, the fort, I was naturally more than a little pissed that I was being subjected to a week without my things, in a town where I knew next to no one, and there were very few kids to begin with. My attitude sucked, basically, and I look back at it now with more than a little shame. For that long week in her old yellow Victorian house, the stifling humidity, mosquitoes, cicadas buzzing as I read a book amongst the ferns next to the back door of the house, Nana tried to find me things to do. Trouble was, baking wasn’t appealing to me (I loved to cook, even then, but it was too hot), my reading didn’t make sense to her (she’s never enjoyed books), and we seemed to be at a classic impasse.
One particularly hot afternoon, I decided that it was the perfect day to build a small, shady fort amongst those same ferns at the back of the house. Nana was tired, hot, and surely at wit’s end with my bratty self, and came out to see what I was doing. Nearly at the breaking point, I figured that she was preparing to yell at me something fierce. But, she didn’t. That just wasn’t in her nature, even when I was being more than trying. Instead, she sat down and helped me, even getting a chuckle out of the fan system I was creating out of fern leaves, before finally joining me inside the finished place. We reached an understanding of sorts that day — one that didn’t last, but one that did pop into my head at 3 in the morning a few nights ago.
For the past few years, we’ve been dealing with Nana’s gradual slide into dementia. Her elder sister headed down that dusty path several years ago, so we knew what was happening as it started, and through the past 18 months or so, every day has been its own little surprise. My mom and aunt take the brunt of the damage, as they receive her multiple daily phone calls of things she’s told them only minutes before, or, in a newer twist, things that are blatantly not true. Whether she’s telling them about a friend who died of pneumonia and where she caught it (the friend died of a stroke), or that she’s telling other family members how badly she feels about me being left at the altar (oh, the puzzled/concerned phone calls my mom and I have had to field over that one — I just want to know who the groom is, so I can kick his ass and steal back the wedding gifts), it’s been a dark adventure, watching how her mind twists and turns itself every day. Through it all, though, I’ve been fairly at with peace with it, because she’s not young, and the fact that while the disease can be frustrating and heartbreaking to those around the her, I had faith that she’d have the same experience that her elder sister has had — fading into an existence that is content and lived minute by minute, with nothing behind or ahead mattering. Isn’t that kind of what we’re all supposed to be doing, anyway? I’ve been harboring a quiet envy of that, in a way.
My mom drove down to take Nana to a family anniversary this weekend, and I called on Sunday to check in, see how everything went. Above and beyond the love for and exasperation with dealing with the usual issues, she shared something new: Nana has become rude. This…well, it floored me. Nana has always been, since the first moments I can recall her when I was probably a year old, the kindest, most thoughtful, sweetest person I’ve ever known. They don’t make people like this anymore — that kind of old-fashioned goodness. Never heard a bad word about anyone or anything, no complaints, nada. (This has driven me nuts more than once in my life, believe me — her rose-colored world clashed with my punk-fueled ethos starting at age 13) To hear that she’s now become vocally and noticeably rude and almost mean is not only shocking, but it’s the cruelest development yet. Is this just an aberration, that will fade away, too? Or is it a part of her personality that’s always been there, that’s she’s been surpressing her whole life and now her mind isn’t strong enough to hold it back anymore?
Maybe, more than anything, it hurts because, despite all my skepticism and doubts about this world, I depended on her innate sweetness as a sort of beacon of reassurance that there still were people in this world who weren’t cold and bitter, who cared and didn’t fall low under the weight of the world.
I don’t have answer. Don’t know that I will, until we see what’s next for her mind.
So, I’m leaning a little harder on the folks around me these days, looking for the briefest glimmers of that same goodness, and I’m finding it in some unexpected people and surprisingly not in others that I was sure had it. That’s to be expected, of course, but I still find myself gravitating towards the ones who have it, all the same. I’m so damn thankful to have friends like these.
Headed to Joshua Tree, Vegas, and parts beyond later this week with two of those folks at the end of this week. JT has this same feeling in spades, and chocolate chip pancakes at Country Kitchen and a drink and some music at Pappy and Harriet’s should help shift me back to a someplace finer, as they always do. I promise, a lighter post about that trip later, before we leave.