I really had a blessed childhood and early adult life. I've been blessed with so many wonderful, strong people in my family who have loved me and shaped me. When I was born, I had both grandmothers, all four great-grandmothers, and 1 great-great- grandmother still living. My great-great passed away at age 97, when I was two years old. I don't really remember her, but she was a firecracker who went to the beach and played in the ocean when she was about 95. My great-grandma Bennett ("Mama Bennett") also passed away when I was small. I vaguely remember going to their house, which they kept dimly lit and at a sweltering temperature. It was so hot in that house that their taper candlesticks were all bent over like they were exhausted from standing up in that heat (true story.) Another great-grandma, "Granny," passed away around the same time. She had long silver hair that she kept twisted into a neat bun. She made her own clothes and churned her own butter and had the reputation for being an outstanding cook. One night, after she had moved in with my grandmother, she was caught up late at night eating ice cream. She said it was because someone told her that eating ice cream at night can make you have crazy dreams, and, "I like to try new things!" My third great-grandma passed away from a stroke when I was 9. She owned several small houses but preferred to live in a boarding home because she wanted the company. I was just starting to understand death then, but I was still too young to really comprehend it. When I was 11, my Mema's precious sister, Mary, passed away from emphesema. Mary was a fireball if there ever was one, red hair and all. She was famous for her one-liners, and she was never without a Dr. Pepper and a pack of Juicy Fruit gum. She drove a Volkwagen Beetle and one time she tried to race a car coming home from Myrtle Beach and threw a rod. They had to creep the rest of the way home in the sweltering heat with all the windows down, which didn't help much because they were going so slow they couldn't even catch a breeze. It's almost impossible for us to get together now without laughing about one of her zingers, or saying, "What would Mary say if she were here?"
Even though all these people were lost from my life, I didn't feel the loss as profoundly as when Mema left us in October. Some of these died when I was too young to remember much. Some I loved dearly, but were not such a part of my daily existence. When Mema died, she left such a hole. Who will call me every time the weather radio goes off to make sure I'm not out driving in a storm? Who will I call to talk about problems and will never try to tell me what to do? What if I never learn just how she got her green beans to taste so good? (Still haven't nailed it.) And then all the things she'll miss. I wanted to call her and tell her I graduated with my master's degree. I wanted to call her and tell her that all her prayers were answered because I got a job. One day, I wish I could put her great-grandbaby in her arms. Do you think people in Heaven get to know the happy news, like a wedding or a new baby?
I've got one wonderful grandmother, and one great-grandmother left.
My great-grandmother has Alzheimer's disease. She's the mother of the one grandmother I have left. We call her "Mac."
Mac lives in a nursing home now, because we became unable to care for her anymore. Sometimes she knows who I am, sometimes she doesn't. Today I asked her if she wanted to come help me fold towels. She said, "I don't believe I do," which made us all laugh because she actually loves to fold. Mac worked hard her whole life. She raised three small children as a young widow after her husband was killed in a coal mine. She took in sewing, cooked for other people, cleaned houses, kept children, and at night she sorted peaches at a peach shed. Even now, even when she doesn't know who we are, if she gets the chance she folds something. Or wipes something off. Or puts something away. Her brain is just wired to work, even if she can't remember where she is or why she's doing it.
It's a slow kind of loss. The "real" Mac is mostly gone. She has flashes of memory, but more often she has a confused stare. She still tells us she loves us, and I think she really does, even if she can't think of our names or how she's related to us. I think something in her still recognizes that we are familiar, and that we love her, too. Alzheimer's is a cruel, painful disease. It forces you to mourn someone who is still sitting next to you, quietly folding and unfolding things.
There's been pain these past few years. There has been profound loss, and I know more loss is to come. But I wouldn't trade it if it meant losing all those precious memories. I've been loved by some amazing people, and I've learned just how precious life and loved ones are. It's true what they say, "It's better to have loved and lost than to have never loved at all." Even in the midst of loss, especially in the midst of loss, I know that it's true and that I've truly been blessed.