By Laura Powell
My mother was angry. Her hands shook as she dropped the picture she was holding onto her mother’s lap. Without a word, she stalked out of the living room and into the kitchen. A moment later, the low hum of the food processor filled the room followed by a loud smack of a kitchen cabinet.
I looked at my grandmother sitting across from me, hunched over in her favorite puffy pink high-backed armchair. She looked down at the picture my mother just showed her and then out at the rain through the big bay window above the couch where I sat. Her eyes were slightly out of focus as she tried in vain to peer into the past. My throat tightened.
It’s OK, I thought. If I were you, I would want to forget too.
Her eyes drifted back down toward the photo on her lap as she struggled to remember the people in it and their significance. She furrowed her brow, framing her big, hazel eyes with dark, well-worn ridges of frustration. The comparison came unbidden to my mind:
Those are my eyes.
People who saw pictures of her as a young twenty-something always said she and I could be sisters. When I cut my bangs short, my dad made me take a picture next to her 21st birthday portrait because the similarity was so uncanny: the same full lips, the same heart shaped face, the same chestnut hair. There I sat, a twenty-two-year-old carbon copy of a woman who had managed to fit three lifetimes into one, remembered none of it and was still ten times the woman I could ever hope to be.
I pushed myself up out of the squishy leather sofa and crossed the room to where she sat.
“Babczi, do you need anything from the kitchen? Do you want coffee or something?” I asked, putting my hand on her shoulder. Pulled from her reverie, she smiled up at me and put her hand on mine. “Maybe some decaf if you don’t mind. I’m going to run upstairs and wake up Ed for dinner.” She tossed the picture onto the table in front of her. Evidently, she had given up on recalling that particular moment of her life. She got up and shuffled out into the hallway to retrieve her then 90-year-old husband.
I glanced down at the familiar image laying on the glass coffee table. A flash of my mother’s sadness and frustration washed over me. I picked up the 5 x 7 and examined it closely before folding it in half and slipping it into my back pocket.
Alzheimer’s is a terrifying affliction, there can be no doubt. But a small, taboo voice in the back of my head still whispered why didn’t she start to misplace her memories sooner? Why would her mind wait this long to let it all go?
At my age, Stella had already lived through the Great Depression, lost loved ones in World War II, and was supporting her family with the money she earned from being a full-time seamstress. At twenty-three, she married a WWII veteran named Edward Lukiewski and for the next 70 years, she supported him. Stella raised his seven children, kept his house, made his meals, and held him while he shook in the dark reliving D-Day again and again as a hellish dreamscape.
When their children grew to become fully functioning adults, she helped them raise their children. The woman fed us, prayed for us, and poured a little of herself into us all. There is no pain more conflicting and utterly consuming than watching children grow, thrive, leave, and forget. Yet that was the life she had chosen nearly twenty times over.
Lukiewski women like to carry the fear and pain of those around us even if no one asked us to. Even if it hurts us. My grandmother carried her husband’s and her children’s, my mother holds the pain of everyone she meets in the palm of her hand, and I find broken people and try to love them until they’re better. Yet another trait for me to worry about– one more ridge in my brain to fear passing onto my would-be daughter.
Bits of these thoughts shuffled through my brain as I drifted into the kitchen to find my mother compulsively cleaning every surface she could reach.
“Hey,” I said slowly, “do you…”
She shot me a dangerous look that I knew meant not now, possibly never. I nodded and leaned against the refrigerator in silence, staring pointedly at the linoleum floors. The kitchen smelled like every major holiday I could remember– a mix of instant coffee, banana bread, and undertones of bleach. Only the tension was new.
I risked a fleeting look at my mom who had re-entered her tunnel-vision cleaning frenzy, forgetting me, her mother, and everything else that was completely and totally out of her control.
“She used to know everything,” my mother said as we sped home in the dark through the sheets of rain falling around us. The windshield wipers flew back and forth at top speed, squeaking in protest with every swipe. “I swear to God, Laur, she ran the world. This is some scary shit, man,” she said, her father’s baby blue eyes filled with fear and uncertainty, Bambi in headlights.
I sat in silence and watched cars pass in the opposite direction out of the passenger’s side window. Rivulets of water distorted headlights and repainted the passing landscape as a messy watercolor. I reached into my pocket and unfolded the picture. Mom glanced over to see what I was holding and let out a huff of renewed exasperation. She shook her head and I could tell she was reliving the moment when she had showed the image to her mother a few hours before.
It was easily my favorite picture of the three of us- my dad snapped it at my christening. My mother, an angelic vision in white, was holding me and my back is to the camera. I was peeking over her shoulder, passed out without a care in the world. My grandmother stood next to us beaming and holding my little hand which, at the time, was only big enough to wrap around her index finger.
When the bad memories leave, so do the good ones.
“She didn’t even recognize us,” she kept shaking her head like she always does when she’s trying to fend off tears. “I can’t explain it. Just imagine if I couldn’t pick you out of a photo. Just imagine that.”
I sighed heavily, looked over at my mom, and tried to picture a world in which she couldn’t identify me, her only child, her baby girl. I immediately regretted even entertaining the thought and shoved it, and the feelings that accompanied it, back into the shadowy parts of my brain.
“Well,” I said dryly, a smirk on my lips, “lucky for you Alzheimer’s usually skips a generation.”
“Laura Anne, that’s not funny.” Gallows humor, yet another quality that Stella and I share. “We have to be the ones who remember now,” she went on, gesturing vehemently at the car in front of us. “We have to be the ones to step up now that we’ve lost… we’re losing her.”
She was saying “we”, but she meant “I”.
God, she was trying so hard to be strong for me. I quietly listened to her attempt to prop herself up with bold words glued together with fear-based conviction under the shadow of an inevitably painful, difficult future. I wondered if words alone would be enough to keep her from crumbling down.
“We can do it. We can be the brains of the operation. We’ll all take care of her together, the whole family. She’s… she’s always taken care of us. It’s our turn now,” I said, putting what I hoped was a comforting hand on her shoulder. To my relief, she smiled.
“You’re right, I know you’re right. I was just never going to be ready for this.”
My mouth twitched as I tried to figure out who I sympathized with more: the woman who needed to forget or those she left behind.