Our memories define who we are. They are the things that tie us to meaningful places as well as to the people we have loved. Memories are a part of us.
So who are we without them?
Who are we with nothing but lost, scattered memories?
Who is my grandma?
* * *
The car ride to the retirement home is short. Dad parks the car right up front in between a black jeep and a red pickup truck.
He turns to me with a thin smile. “Ready, honey?”
I nod and get out of the car and can feel the thick heat bouncing onto my face from the sun. The fresh scent of flowers dances in the air and tickles my nose playfully.
With hands clasped together, Dad and I walk up the steps to the large white retirement home. We push open the heavy glass doors, allowing the air conditioning to cool me down from the summer heat outside. I see Patty at the front desk and smile. She looks up happily and waves us over with bright eyes.
“How are you today?” she asks from her swivel chair.
“We’re doing good,” Dad replies.
I grab a mint from the glass jar sitting on top of the desk. “How’s my grandma?” I ask as I unwrap the mint and plop it into my mouth.
She gives me a reassuring smile and places a lock of black hair behind her ear. “She is doing well. I’m sure she will be very happy to see you both.”
“Thanks, Patty,” Dad says as we begin to walk towards another set of glass doors.
We push the doors open and enter a large room. One side of the room is filled with nice leather couches occupied by elders squinting at the television in the corner, and the other has corkboards filling the wall of the different activities occurring this month. Dad and I pass by old people mingling within the retirement home, canes and walkers in hand.
We pass by an old woman wearing large glasses with white hair pulled back into a bun. “Hello!” She smiles and waves.
I don’t know who this woman is, but I smile and wave back. Dad has always told me that I should do this. He tells me that living in places like this can be sad. Living here can remind you of your limitations. And sometimes the families of those living here don’t even bother to visit—they don’t even say hello. If I ever had to live in a place like this, I would be sad, too.
We walk down a red-carpeted hallway with doors on both sides leading into bedrooms. Names are written in a slot next to each door in thick black letters of those who live here.
At the end of the hall we stop. The door to Grandma’s room is wide open, and I can feel a humid breeze. Dad walks in first, looking concerned, with me following from behind. Usually Grandma’s door is shut tight when we come to visit.
I can see Dad’s shoulders relax in front of me and feel mine do the same. Grandma is sitting in her wooden rocking chair by the corner in front of an open window. I puzzle at this for a moment. Grandma never has her window open, either. But I shake the thought off quickly to put on a smile for her.
“Who are you?” Grandma stares at us with furrowed eyebrows.
“Hi, Mom.” Dad takes a seat in the other wooden rocking chair next to Grandma. “It’s me, Daniel, your son.”
“Oh, Daniel!” Her face lightens up and produces a wrinkled smile.
“And this is your granddaughter, Maggie,” he says as he gestures to me.
“Hi, Grandma!” I say as I take a seat on her neatly made bed.
She puts a delicate hand to her pale cheek. “I didn’t know that I had a grandchild…”
My heart aches for a moment as I look at her. Grandma’s faded blue eyes show nothing. There is no sign of recollection at all.
“That’s OK, Mom.” Dad takes her hand into his. “Maybe you don’t recognize her. She probably looks different…”
Dad frowns suddenly and looks down at Grandma’s hand.
“Dad, what’s wrong?” I straighten up and try to read his face.
He looks back up at Grandma in panic. “Mom, where’s your ring?”
Grandma blinks. “What ring?”
“Your wedding ring, Mom,” Dad speaks louder, “the one that your husband gave to you?”
She shakes her head. “I don’t understand.”
Dad rummages quickly through her dress pockets, fishing out nothing but tissues. He turns to me with a stern look. “Maggie, go push the employee assistance button,” he says quickly.
I nod and run to the bedroom door. Next to it on the right side is a large red button with bold letters underneath it saying Employee Assistance. I push it urgently. And then, after waiting only a second more, I push it again.
Suddenly Alex, one of the employees, walks in.
“Do you need…” he begins.
Dad cuts him off. “Her wedding ring. It’s not on her!”
Alex’s eyes grow behind his glasses as he lets his mouth hang open.
“I need help finding it!”
Alex nods quickly and stumbles into the room. “Yes, of course.”
Dad turns to me briefly. “Maggie, sit down next to her, OK?”
I rush over to Grandma and take a seat next to her in the wooden rocking chair.
We both watch in a blur as they rummage through the drawers and shelves. Dad and Alex go through her bin of dirty clothes and delicately turn over each dress and each pair of pants to make sure the ring couldn’t be hidden inside them. They rip off the sheets of what was once her neatly made bed and even crawl around on the floor, looking under everything.
I turn to Grandma and wonder if she knows what’s happening. I wonder if she remembers Grandpa, even if it is just fragments of him.
I watch as she shakes her head in disbelief as she observes them closely. “This is nonsense,” she mutters. “At this rate, we’ll probably miss the flight back to California.”
* * *
They couldn’t find the ring anywhere. Alex and Dad tore through Grandma’s room. They searched all through the retirement home and even across the lawn in the back. Nothing.
This evening Dad went to the downtown police station. He told me as we drove back home in a quavering tone, “Someone might have stolen it, Maggie.” I didn’t know how to respond to this. My mind froze at the thought of someone stealing from Grandma. She’s an innocent person. She wouldn’t know what was going on.
But what if someone did?
What if someone really did steal Grandma’s wedding ring?
I can see Dad’s shadow stretch across my bedroom floor.
“Maggie, why is your lamp still on?” His voice is soft and gentle as he enters my room.
I sit up in my bed and take a deep breath. Dinner isn’t sitting right in my stomach. Everything just feels wrong. “I can’t sleep,” is all I can say as I look up at him.
He slowly nods his head and takes a seat on my bed next to me. “That’s OK, honey.”
“Will the police find the ring?” I ask.
He takes my hands into his and holds them tight. “I can’t know for sure if it was actually stolen. His voice is quiet and unsure.
There’s a pause in our conversation where all I can hear is the buzz of my bedside lamp.
I open my mouth, trying to think of the right words to say. “Dad, what kind of a person would steal from Grandma?”
He closes his eyes and sighs. “I don’t know, Maggie, I don’t know.”
* * *
Before Grandma was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s by her doctor, she lived with Dad and me. She moved in with us a little after Grandpa passed away.
I remember a lot about Grandma before she got sick. Like the way she would dance and sing to me when I was feeling bad. Everything seemed to change when she got sick, though. I had to remind her of the lyrics to the songs she would sing to me that she knew by heart. A couple times I would catch her using the wrong side of her hairbrush or even cutting up some of her favorite family photos. It made no sense to me, but it seemed to make sense to her doctor.
I was only six then, and now that I’m thirteen, things have gotten much worse for Grandma. The day that she forgot who I was was the most unforgettable.
I watch Grandma now as she looks out her closed window with a satisfied look on her face, as I think about everything and wish it was all different. I’m angry that Grandma has to experience a disease like Alzheimer’s and angry at the thought of a person ever stealing from her.
Dad went to a few different jewelry stores in town to see if they had Grandma’s wedding ring. He tried hard to talk to Grandma, to see if he could even get a little bit of recollection about what had happened to her ring. But there was no sign of her remembrance.
“Isn’t it just lovely outside, Rebecca?” Grandma says.
It takes a moment for me to realize that it’s actually me she’s talking to. I open my mouth, wanting to say that it’s actually me, Maggie, her granddaughter that she loves and not Rebecca. But I stop myself. Sometimes it hurts to remind her of who I am.
“Yeah, it’s a really nice day outside,” I reply and look out the window with her.
As I look outside with her at the birds swimming and gliding through the air, I wonder if Rebecca is someone from Grandma’s memories. Maybe I look like Rebecca with my short brown hair and green eyes.
I find myself standing up and walking over to the opposite side of the room where all of Grandma’s pictures hang from the wall. The arrangement of them always seems to change, with new ones being hung up now and then, and some even disappearing.
“You have a lot of pictures over here,” I say as I look at them all.
My eyes rest on a faded photograph of a group of middle-aged friends on a beach wearing bathing suits and smiling. One of the persons’ heads looks like it has been cut out choppily.
“Papa just got me a nice camera for my birthday,” Grandma says proudly. “I took a few photographs yesterday.”
I look over my shoulder at her curiously but then look back at the wall and suddenly find a wooden framed photo of Grandpa amidst the many photographs. It looks like him a little before he passed away. His gray hair is combed back neatly and his wide smile is hidden behind his short white beard. I can feel myself smile, too, and am reminded of the small memories I’ve made with him. For a moment I wonder if Grandpa knows all that has happened to Grandma, if he is sad or angry.
I hear the sudden stir of Grandma behind me and turn around to see her up on her feet with a look of shock on her face.
“Grandma?” I stare at her nervously, unsure of what to do.
Grandma ignores me and walks straight out of her bedroom and into the hall.
I follow her out of her room and down the hallway. “Grandma!”
She quickly opens the back screen door to the retirement home’s yard and rushes outside. I try and grasp onto her floral dress to stop her, but she already has stopped.
I can feel the sun’s heat on my face and back and hear the birds chirping happily. I stare at Grandma as a soothing breeze sways her curly hair. Her eyes are shut and her lips have formed a peaceful smile.
“Can’t you hear them?” she whispers. “Can’t you hear the angels?”
There is a moment of stillness as I look up into the sky. It is so blue, so flawless. I can feel my eyes close just like Grandma’s, and I think I can hear them.
They are singing. They are looking over Grandma.
It is in this moment that I realize everything will be OK. Grandma will be OK.
I can hear the angels.