My grandmother is the strongest woman I know.
Her history and her memories weave a colorful picture. In my memory, she starts her story as a young woman graduating university in a British colony with an English degree. My memory continues with her arranged marriage and the birth of her four children, all of whom she raised on a large property with farm animals that she happily tended to every morning. She lost her husband in her 50s, but continued to travel on her own and pay for her children’s weddings. And then, I was born, and her story became our story.
When I was two years old, my grandmother slipped on an escalator in London, but emerged unscathed. My sister and I came up with a song in our native tongue of Bengali about her fall—the memories now documented in old VHS tapes. Whenever I play them, I can hear the sound of my grandmother’s contagious laughter at our silly melody. She had no serious medical conditions and lived life simply to be happy and to help others.
Soon after I turned 14, she was diagnosed with Parkinson’s. Before her diagnosis, I had never heard of that P word before—Parkinson’s.
Every now and then, I sit on the bed she lived in and out of since I was five, and I close my eyes. I try and remember—all the memories. Three always come to mind.
The tapes in my brain rewind, and a scene appears, almost in stop motion. The gaps between movements have faded plenty over the last 12 years, but the moments still appear.
I remember running into her room after getting mad at my parents over something silly. She was sitting on the left corner of her bed by the lamp, reading her bulky novel with her glasses on the bridge of her nose. She looked up and saw me with my arms crossed, huffing and puffing with my face all red. She placed her book down and took off her reading glasses, daintily placing them on her bedside table and sighed with the hint of a soft smile: “Myisha, come here.” And I ran straight into her arms and cried with all my might, until I slowly fell asleep.
I remember sleeping in that bed after she moved back to Bangladesh when I was ten years old. Now I had a bed and a room all to myself, but the last five years had been spent sleeping next to her. While trying to sleep in the bed alone that night, I tried to picture what it had been like with her sleeping next to me. I tried to recall the stories she would tell me about the red princess—me—and the purple queen—herself. I would whisper the same stories to myself until I drifted asleep.
But these days, more often than not, I remember sitting in that bed when she asked me: “Myisha, what does Parkinson’s mean? What is it going to do to me?”
I asked all of my friends if any of their loved ones had been impacted by it. I searched countless forums on the internet trying to figure out how to cope with this slow, painful loss. My memories of my grandmother from my childhood were full of light and happiness—comfort, above all. Now, it was my turn to be the caretaker.
So, I fibbed a little and I told her: “It means your hands shake sometimes…and you gradually lose control…but don’t worry, it isn’t fatal. I have friends with grandparents who have that condition.”
It was the first time I lied to her, but it made her feel better even if it was just momentarily, though I saw the hints of worry in her brown eyes.
There are technical, almost sterile definitions of Parkinson’s, but there are personal, warm definitions, too. Definitions based on experience, and mine is full of an indescribable sensation.
The meaning of Parkinson’s last four years is interacting with someone who is losing memory of you, but still having distinct memory of them. It means repeating yourself and telling stories of the past as if the person you’re telling wasn’t there, even though they were. It means walking into the room you shared and feeling the memories try and slip past your fingers, but grabbing onto them as hard as you can, screaming with all your might.
Most recently, it means having to tell them over the phone who you are because they get confused trying to match voices to faces. It also means listening to them as they fade into a cloud of disarray and hallucination, unable to keep a conversation going for more than three sentences. It means knowing you can’t help them because you’re thousands of miles apart, but that they’re happier in the place they were born and raised—in their homeland.
Memory is fleeting, but memory can also be what you make of it. The memories you have of a loved one who passed, or is passing, can disappear when you allow it to because it’s too painful to remember. But I encourage everyone to remember, no matter how much it hurts. Remember all the joyful memories—from silly little things to getting over hardship together and feeling relief. While memories of that caliber may never be created again, they were created once, and they live deep in your mind and in your heart. We must celebrate life alongside mourning loss and live life intentionally, so there are no What Ifs when our loved ones pass.
For now, I watch my grandmother at a distance.
I watch as she slowly loses parts of herself every day, and I refrain from speaking to her as much because I want to remember those beautiful parts of her that she gave to me. I am forced to ask myself constantly—is not wanting to talk to her selfish? Why can’t I choose to remember all the good things as our time dwindles away, instead of seeing her lose memory of me day by day? Why can’t I celebrate her life and her memory instead?
Our story is touching on the last few chapters but the rest of the novel is full of happiness.
I have always thought of my grandmother as the embodiment of the meaning of her name: Rani—queen. Every story with a princess is supposed to come with a happy ending, so why can’t I do the same for a queen?
She is still a queen—
She is halfway across the world and I miss her dearly…and I pray for her even though it makes me weary.
But she asks this of me, and she’s never asked much of everyone in her life.
Even though the queen must be cared for now, and though the clock of her life nears midnight and the day may end, that doesn’t mean she’s any less of the queen she always was.
She is still a queen,
Even if she may not be in hers,
She is a queen in my mind,
And now in yours too.