I’ve been in clean-out mode the past few weeks, rummaging through my closet, emptying out drawers and putting my life’s possessions in piles as I declutter. There’s the throwaway pile, the giveaway pile and the keep pile, and since I haven’t been feeling very sentimental lately, the last pile keeps getting smaller.
Part of my minimization efforts include tackling four shoeboxes full of cards—birthday cards, anniversary cards, thank you cards and so on. I’m a words person and love reading what people have written to me, but after years and years of collecting cards, I decided it’s time to pare it down, keeping only the really special ones.
That’s how I came across a couple of letters from my grandmother, dating several years back.
As I read the first letter, I was caught off guard. I started crying just a few sentences in, and within a couple of minutes could hardly catch my breath, like someone punched me in the gut. It reminded me of what used to be and what never will be again.
I’m fortunate that both my grandparents on my mom’s side are still around and that I’ve always been close to them. But in the past several years, my grandmother’s mental health has declined.
At times I get angry—at this aging process, at the fact that she doesn’t try harder to take care of herself. Other times I’m amused—at her no-filter comments, at her quips about getting older. And sometimes I’m disheartened. It won’t get better. It won’t get easier. And it scares the bejesus out of me that I might find myself in the same boat someday.
Mamaw was valedictorian in high school. She was a math whiz and kept the books for my grandfather’s business for over 30 years. She taught Sunday school for what seems like forever and loved to write just like I do. She was a fantastic cook. I remember waking up to the smell of bacon, eggs, biscuits and gravy.
Now I have to mentally prepare for our conversations. During one of our recent ones, she told me it was raining four times during our 30-minute chat. She’ll talk about all the things she has to do even though she doesn’t. Or the contest she’s about to win although we all know it’s a scam.
She doesn’t cook anymore or teach Sunday school. I can’t remember the last time she wrote me a note.
I always looked forward to visiting my grandparents and still do. I want to sit in their living room with no particular topic of conversation as the grandfather clock ticks in the background.
But it’s hard.
Reading her letters brought back memories of the Alaska cruise we took in 2009—just the two of us. She called it “the trip of a lifetime.” She wrote about the Sunday school lesson she had to prepare and the beans Papaw brought in from the garden that she needed to cook.
In a letter she sent while I was studying in Australia in 2007, she shared how happy she was that I was traveling but asked me not to make a habit of skydiving. She told me about her new Kodak camera and how she was learning to zoom. “I’m still trying to learn all the ins and outs and what all the different buttons are for,” she wrote. She told me about the creative writing class she was taking, too: “I’ve been working on my first short story. … If I have to shorten it much more it will lose some of the interesting parts and I don’t want it to be dull.”
She wrote about things that I’m thankful for, but that I’m sad are in the past. Dementia is stealing my grandmother away from me.
Next week I’ll celebrate my birthday, which I’ve always loved. I know some people get depressed when they’re a year older, but so far, I’ve enjoyed it. What I don’t like about aging is that certain memories get farther and farther away.
Mamaw still knows who I am and is still happy when I call or visit. We carry on conversation and laugh. Over Thanksgiving, I showed her pictures from my trip to Ireland as she commented on how beautiful it was. She always wanted to travel more (Papaw is a homebody), so I’m beyond grateful for our trip to Alaska, as well as subsequent trips to D.C. and Charleston.
But it’s different.
And as much as I like to change things up, there are some things I wish could stay the same.