by Claire C., 15
I walk downstairs during my lunch period. The wooden floor feels cool against my bare feet. It is a cold morning, and weak rays of sun slide through the slits in the blinds. In my hands, I hold my phone and water bottle. The small carabiner clinks as I walk into the kitchen. I look in and see my Grandma sitting at the table, reading a book on her kindle. Her grey mass of curly hair is pulled back into a ponytail. Her wrinkled droopy skin is pin pricked with freckles and small dark spots. Red rimmed rectangular glasses sit on the bridge of her nose.
“Good morning Grandma,” I say.
She looks up at me and smiles. “Good morning.”
“How are you doing?” I ask.
“I’m good,” she responds.
“Well, I have to go to class, I’ll see you later.”
“See you later,” she says and she returns her gaze to the small black letters on the screen in front of her.
Every conversation is almost identical to this one. Every day we rehearse our lines. Sometimes I may slip up and comment on the weather or ask where my Mom and Dad are but other than that, we stick to the script. I don’t know when I’ll be called in to perform. I just know I’ll be ready. By then these words will seem natural. They already do.
My Grandma had a stroke in March. My Dad went to Florida and then came back to New Jersey to quarantine for two weeks when visitors were banned from hospitals. Grandma was put into a rehab facility and later medically transported to live with us. She has been here since April.
I was never incredibly close with my Grandma. She was tough and didn’t hang out with the family very often because she was annoyed by the noise we made. She was busy and particular, independent and articulate. It’s hard to remember her before. Slowly my image of my Grandma melted and morphed into the image of the person she is today. I think of her as two different people. The one who appears in old pictures on my Mom’s Shutterfly with a big smile and neon athletic shirt, and the one who now sits stoically at my kitchen table.
The beginning was hard. Dad solely took care of her. He changed her and bathed her and fed her. He had severe back problems from transporting her from place to place, so Mom and I took over. We slept upstairs every night in the backhouse, trying to drown out Grey’s Anatomy as it played loudly on my Grandma’s TV. Mom would wake up a few times a night to change her when she frantically called her own name, Donna, over and over or said, okay, okay, okay, okay. Sometimes she cried or uttered incomprehensible sentences. It was impossible not to cry a few tears when I saw her this way. This independent woman who had always known exactly what she wanted now couldn’t express her needs. This woman who had her doctorate in speech pathology now couldn’t find the words to say what she was thinking and instead mimicked thoughts of others. She was paralyzed on the right side of her body and couldn’t stand up by herself let alone do the morning walks that she loved. Yet she also couldn’t understand what my parents did for her every day. She couldn’t appreciate the never-ending care and attention that was always sitting by her side or just a room away. It was as if she viewed reality through a pair of yellow lenses in which everyone around her seemed unburdened and free. As the heat of summer slowly tamed and the crisp leaves on autumn trees began to fall, she was moved into our house where she sits at the kitchen table every morning and reads a book on her kindle.
Our morning conversation is simple, yet hidden in my fake smile are my jumbled, dark thoughts. There is much buried in the depths of my words that she sits oblivious to. My heart sinks when I think of what my family has gone through and continues to go through in caring for her. My Grandma lost her freedom when she had her stroke, yet at that same moment, my family did too. I don’t understand how their smiles can be so pure and genuine while mine is false. I hate myself for these thoughts yet they come every day when I walk down the stairs to say, “Good morning.”
Now our routine is almost natural. Engraved into my being. Because I know I love my Grandma even if she isn’t all here. Because I love my parents and aspire to their selflessness. Yet every day I fear that my smile will falter and the cracks will reveal the person I truly am. These qualities that I mask. The ones I see when I look at my Grandma. It terrifies me when I think of how similar we are. How we get annoyed and aggravated by the smallest of things. How we don’t recognize the people around us and what they do to make our lives full. I am my Mom; sweet, kind, and caring. My Dad; strong, articulate, and dependable.
But I am also my Grandma.
And I’m still trying to figure out what that means.
Bradley Beach, New Jersey
Notes from our interns on selecting this piece: This piece features haunting, empathetic observations from a narrator with a knack for details and imagery. Specific details anchor this piece—Shutterfly photos, Grey’s Anatomy in the background, two weeks of quarantine—amongst the heartfelt exploration of family and finding your place in the world.