Alzheimer’s introduced me to my grandmother

I walk slowly down the hall, careful to look at the pictures mounted in glass next to each doorway. One particularly arresting photograph catches my eye: a beautiful young woman posing shyly in a flower garden. I look inside the door next to the picture and see her, grey hair matted against the headrest of her wheelchair where she lays asleep, mouth gaping open and useless legs twisted on a built-in footstool in front of her. I wonder what used to make her laugh and who she loved.

I walk on. My grandmother is at the end of the hall, sitting with her back to me in her own wheelchair among a group of other old women. A nurse dances for them, making goofy gestures and noises as if they are toddlers at a birthday party. I watch my grandmother for a moment, so alone in a crowd, remembering her bent over in her garden, picking fragrant ripe peppers for dinner.

Baba sees me approach and smiles politely as I lean down to kiss her cheek. “Hi Baba,” I say. “How are you?” She mumbles something to me in Macedonian, a language I cannot understand. “Yes, great!” I respond foolishly, emptily, as the divide between us creaks open just a little wider.

I wheel her down the hallway to the visitor area while she quietly hums a tuneless song, resigned to her captivity.

We arrive at an arrangement of comfortable couches and I sit down across from Baba. As we face each other, my grandmother puts her hand to my shoulder-length hair.

“Me, I used to wear very long,” she says suddenly, unexpectedly, in broken English as she gazes into the past. “Two long braids all the way down.” She gestures to her lower back.

“Your hair must have been very beautiful,” I say, holding on tightly to these rare words while imagining her as a girl in the small Macedonian farming village where she is from and from where she fled with her two young children in 1953.

She puts her hand to my hair again. “Me, I used to wear in long braids, very long,” she says. “Your hair must have been very beautiful,” I say again. And around we go, dancing our waltz of time and memory, stepping on each other’s feet.

I am grateful.

Many people call Alzheimer’s a thief, ruthless in its quest to steal all that makes life worth living: the names and faces of children and grandchildren, the memories of years gone by, the ability to eat and swallow. And it is. But in its own mysterious way, it also introduced me to my grandmother.

As Alzheimer’s took away Baba’s present and sent her deep into the past, her precious few words came to reveal a woman of extraordinary strength and resilience.

Before the disease struck, I did not know my Baba wore her hair in two long braids as a young girl. I also didn’t know that she was desperately sad to leave her home in northern Greece behind when it came time to board a ship headed for Nova Scotia, toward the husband who had left two years earlier to establish their new life in Toronto. I didn’t know that she endured backbreaking labour picking watermelons from dawn to dusk before that journey, bearing the sole responsibility of making ends meet for her children.

I had always known she was strong, but I didn’t know how strong. It took the onset of a disease for the stories to emerge from a long-buried past, for her words — the bit of English she knows, the bit of Macedonian I learned — to break free from the inhibitions of a language barrier to tell those stories.

But Alzheimer’s moves fast. Her words, the stories, stop as quickly as they start. Every visit, the words and the stories are fewer and farther between. Often, there are no words. Regret fills the void created by time, which slips faster and faster through my fingers.

As silence once again falls over our visit, my grandmother lost in the murky waters of her disease, a resident approaches me and asks: “Are you her granddaughter?” I nod. “You have her eyes,” she says.

I have her eyes — a shade of brown that belies Mediterranean roots. I am proud and I am shamed by this compliment. Proud because I bear a resemblance to this strong, gentle woman who went through hell and back to bring her family to a country of peace from one of war. Shamed because my eyes hide the fact that I did not know her sooner.

As time slips away along with Baba and her story of an epic journey across oceans, I fear the day my children, and their children, will forget that their brown eyes have a story to tell. Or perhaps their eyes won’t be brown at all.

On the way back to her room after our visit, Baba and I are alone in the elevator. I put my hand on hers and whisper, “We miss you.” She looks at me and smiles softly before turning away to hum her tuneless song to the elevator door, as if I was never there at all.