“You made it, Grandma!” I said as I gave her a hug. The gold tassel swished in my face from the graduation cap I hadn’t removed yet.
“I’ve been to all your graduations, Iha,” she replied in a huff, “And, I’ll be at the next one.”
I gripped her hand as she steadied herself with the walker she used. The crowds of people around us were still filling along slowly towards the exit of the open-air theatre. My outdoor undergraduate ceremony just ended in time for the California sunshine to reach the start of the hotter part of the day. My family and I waited for enough of the crowd to dispense so we could walk down to our lunch reservations. The words my Grandma spoke were ringing in my ear.
And I’ll be there for the next one. I really hope you are… or that there is a next one. But I doubt it…
My Grandma was eighty-five years old and had been suffering from Alzheimer’s for the past nine years. Today is one of her better days as she is aware of why she is in this strange arena and who she is with. It is taking the act of various points of my eyes darting around to avoid crying over the fact that she’s here with me, that she remembers who I am right now. This disease, known as “The Long Goodbye,” is one I hate more than I thought possible. This was a woman who emigrated from the Philippines as a political refuge when she was in her forties. She restarted her entire life as a social worker for LA County. She used this new career to champion senior causes as she aged and was appointed to the California Commission on Aging by the California governor of the time.
This woman raised me for as long as I can remember. She was my family’s go-to babysitter for most of my childhood. Grandma is the one who introduced me to the pride of creating a mouth-watering dish. To this day, when I get sick, I long for her Arroz Caldo, a chicken rice porridge she would make me whenever I got dropped off with even the smallest sniffle. I can hear the scrape of the knife against the knots of ginger as it gently peeled each one by her hand, as I sipped her unique concoction of Pedialyte and 7-up. She had a lemon tree that we planted in her front yard that I would pick from just as the soup was ready, to add a few drops of lemon juice to add as a garnish. The scent of the lemons wafting from the tree would lull me to sleep as the breeze blew through the house. Like all good wartime survivors, my Grandma would leave the doors and windows open rather than turn the air conditioner on in the household.
Grandma is also the woman who showed me what independence looked like. My grandfather was a navy veteran, but she never relied on his income alone. In their house, she created her own ‘woman cave’, filled with an industrial sewing machine, a regular sewing machine, and every kind of fabric and pattern imaginable.
“You always need to know how to take care of yourself, Iha,” she’d tell me while hand stitching my torn play clothes back together, “You are the only one who will be there for yourself all the time. Never rely on another to give you everything. It won’t happen.”
She would videotape these examples of other women who held their own against the world. Princess Diana was a constant favorite throughout my youth, especially after her divorce from Prince Charles. Grandma would put on videotapes of several Olympic champions, all female, to encourage my athletic curiosity. She bought books and magazines on female doctors or studies when I expressed an interest in medicine. The best moments with her were our weekly ‘make-up tutorials.’ Every weekend until my grandfather grew too weak to continue, they would plan for one night out to go ballroom dancing. His closet had the scent of sandalwood and jasmine from the cologne he’d wear with his tuxedo and tails each weekend, the white gloves and shiny patent leather shoes always polished to the fullest extent. Her closet had the softness of ostrich feathers and silks and satins, gowns made in a time when beads were handsewn to give just a hint of sophistication and glamour. White elbow gloves hung next to yards and yards of soft chiffon as she would sit me down at her vanity mirror to talk perfume and make-up.
“You know it’s too much perfume if they have to wrinkle their nose when you’re around. Each perfume will react to your body differently. The one that’s best suited for you will linger on your skin long after you’ve sprayed it and should linger in your suitor’s mind long after you’ve left…”
Trials of lipstick and gloss, eye pencils, and blush mixed with bubbly giggles and the slow trumpet from Isn’t It Romantic? eventually ended with my grandfather strolling to the room to “pick up” his wife for their date. He would brag how a real man knew how to dance the waltz, the foxtrot, and the tango before escorting me to my parents’ car for my inevitable drive home. It is the vividness of those times that made the Alzheimer’s diagnosis more cruel as the years wore on. I could see the light in my Grandma’s eyes change from bewilderment to anger to complete despair.
“Who are you?”
“Where am I? Where is my mom? My sister?”
“Is my husband coming back soon?”
To go from the absolute vomit-inducing, stomach plunging moment of trying to come up with an appropriate answer to those questions to the next, when she would have total clarity of my relationship to her, was a rollercoaster. How many times did I step away to “use the restroom” to hide the tears of anguish on my face? How many sleepless nights ensuring that I stayed awake long enough to make sure she slept and didn’t wander outside or turn on a stove by herself? How many letters did I write to her as I went away to college, overwrought with guilt that I would miss out on her final years on this planet by doing something I know she would have wanted for me? All the anger and frustration of visiting during a “bad spell,” the pain in her voice was so palpable. I listened to her hatred. The hatred that I was part of her captivity, that I could not give her a way out.
I sat next to her my entire graduation lunch, making sure my hand was always close by. Before that event, I had planned this big speech to her about how much she meant to me, how I never forgot how strong she was, how kind, how brave. That she was my biggest inspiration, my cheerleader in the back of my mind when the late-night study sessions and workload got hard. The rage in my veins that day brought my heart rate up to the point of nearly exploding out of my chest as I realized I would not get the chance to tell her those things. She had progressed too far in the disease. By the time I was buttering her bread as we waited for the meal, she smiled sweetly at me, asking, “Who are you, dear?”
She passed away eight months after that ceremony. I was home from work, my first job after college when the phone call came. I barely remember speaking, sitting numbly in my house, staring at a white wall for hours. The relief was there, that her suffering ended, that she finally had some peace and reunited with those she had missed all those years but could not remember. Her memory now lingers in and with me. There isn’t a day that has gone by that I haven’t thought of her. What she would say when I’m depressed or sick or successful. I can say that there has not been another graduation ceremony after I completed my undergraduate degree. I haven’t felt compelled to go back to graduate school and I can’t say the memory of her and her words don’t color that decision a little. It won’t feel like a graduation without her cheering for me from the audience. I’ve already told my fiance that if I get diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, we need to find a clinic where I can end my life on my terms. I’ve witnessed her loss of memory, and herself. It is the memories we built together that offer me comfort in the darkness, that bring me hope and joy for the possibility of seeing her again someday. Memories of her are part of my soul, and if I lost those, then my life is finished. I can only hope that when I see her, she’s still cooking.
Victory Witherkeigh is a female Filipino author originally from Los Angeles, CA, and currently living in the Las Vegas area. Victory was a finalist for Killer Nashville’s 2020 Claymore Award, an Honoree for Cinnamon Press’s 2020 Literature Award, and Wingless Dreamer’s 2020 Overcoming Fear Short Story award. Her work has appeared in both online and print literary magazines and genre fiction publications of horror and dark fantasy. She has her print publications in a horror anthology, Supernatural Drabbles of Dread, and a literary short story in Overcoming Fear, through Macabre Ladies Publishing and Wingless Dreamers.