The Art of losing isn’t hard to master, so many things seem filled with the intent to be lost that their loss is no disaster.
Lose something every day. Accept the fluster of lost door keys, an hour badly spent. The art of losing isn’t hard to master. Then practice losing farther, losing faster: places, names, and where it was you meant to travel. None of these will bring disaster.
I lost my mother’s watch, and look! My last, or next-to-last of three loved houses went. The art of losing isn’t hard to master.
I lost two cities, lovely ones. And vaster, some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent. I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster.
Even losing you (the joking voice a gesture I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident the art of losing’s not too hard to master. Though it may look like (write it!) like disaster.
As far back as I care to recall presently, I have been ‘lil girl, to grandmama at least. “Say your prayers ‘lil girl,” “Wash dem dishes lil girl, I don’t aim to play housekeeper all day.”
I was ‘lil girl before I began straightening the curly afro I sported in Elementary School. I was ‘lil girl when I discovered ‘lil boys who possessed parts that could replace my magical fingers. And, as you might have surmised, I am two and a half degrees later, still ‘lil girl.
I am not unique in this. That is, this is no pet name. It is not a name that is exclusive to me. All of my male cousins are ‘lil boy. Similarly, all of my female cousins are ‘lil girl. It is an ongoing joke between the lot of us, at least it was, until it wasn’t.
Yes, it was quite hysterical until we realized what it was. Grandma was only 76 years old when they brought her home. They- two patrons of Walmart who’d found her wondering around the parking lot, alone.
“But where is her car?” My mother asked, holding the front door ajar, clinging to it, to reality, normality.
“Why it must still be there,” the gentleman answered, “when we found her she only said she couldn’t remember where she was going. My wife,” he gestured towards the woman holding onto grandma’s arm, “asked for her ID and we, well, we thought it best to just get her home straightaway. “
“Yes, of course.” My mother forgot her shock and remembered her manners.
“My father had Alzheimer’s too” the woman whispered, with a wink.
My mother looked stunned. This, Alzheimer’s, hadn’t occurred to her. Grandma had been forgetting for years, but we all forgot, every now and then.
“Never mind what we thought.” The husband stuttered. Silencing his wife.
“Why yes,” The woman smiled at grandma. Patted her hand and relinquished her arm, “you just get yourself inside and get some rest.
Grandma walked obliviously through the door that was still holding onto Mama. Ma mouthed a “thank you” to the strangers, but stood in place.
I remember driving grandma’s car home from Walmart later that day, an old Mercedes Benz her deceased son bought her brand new over a decade ago. The car was one of her few cherished possessions, never mind how old it was now. She was a simple country girl, and 5 kids and countless years later, it made her feel as though she’d finally arrived.
Never mind how her son attained the car, or the dismal fact that the same streets that carried him would slurp him up and bury him in the cement. Be that as it was, she’d arrived. She’d finally arrived.
She’d bought hats in every color with the Mercedes Benz emblem imprinted boldly on them and she wore them over a crooked wig. Wore them to church to pray for her wayward son and wore them to the bank to deposit the checks his sins brought her.
A generation later, she would present one of the hats to my younger brother when he purchased his first car with stained money, it was a newer but similarly colored Mercedes Benz.
“Which one you want” she asked?
“Whichever grandma,” he answered with a chuckle as he tried on the black, white, and red hats, one after the other. “Well, if you really don’t mind, I think I like the red one best” he smiled.
“The red one then,” she laughed as she collected her remaining hats, the remnants of her youngest son, and tipped away with them slowly.
Grandma lives with my parents now, and every day she forgets. The loss of names seems trivial now, she’s lost larger things. She forgets to eat, to shower, and why she can’t drive that old Benz parked out in the grass beside our home. Even larger still, her siblings are dropping one by one, and she forgets them too.
“This says John Henry Ivory II” she reads the emboldened letters she’s memorized loudly. “Sunset: January twenty-fours,” she adds an s onto the number four and glares at it suspiciously. Then, “come read this ‘lil girl.”
I read her brother’s obituary aloud.
“Born in Fort Valley, Georgia.” She shakes her head at my recitation. “He was one of thirteen.” She nods affirmatively. “A farmer and a carpenter.” She nods slower this time. Leans back in the leather/cowhide chair that looks much too large for her. Stretches her right leg all the way out so that the joints in her knee can breathe.
“So how many left? Me, Ethel, Mary” she counts off her remaining siblings, one finger at a time.
I stop her. “Mary passed a few years back actually, Mary and Dot.”
“Dot,” she chuckles, “Dot prayed to pass. She didn’t wanna live past 80. Didn’t wanna smell ole age and suffer’in. Dot been pray’in that prayer for years, and God took her right in.” Grandma smiles.
As the story actually goes, Dot prayed to live at least until she was 80 after watching both of her parents die young- her mother to cancer, her father to himself. Grandma always tells the story this way, however, and these days it seems fair to let her tell it however she’d like.
“I’m not going to ask God to take me. I’m not ready for that. I wanna leave when God wants me to leave, and I might not be ready then.”
We laugh for a bit and by default circle around the deaths we’ve witnessed in our backwards family.
“You know how daddy died?”
“Drowned himself, in a bucket.” This too is wrong. Her father hung himself.
“I think you have that wrong,” I suggest softly. She shakes her head in dissent. Recalls his legs shaking on both sides of the bucket, “like an animal.”
I persist in trying to make her memory logical, “did he tie something around his neck first, perhaps?”
She gets up and limps to the kitchen. “You just stay right there, “she calls. She walks and her one bad knee follows as she scavenges the kitchen looking for an exemplar. She settles for a ceramic vase that is much too thin to house a human head.
She stands before me with the vase. “Now you don’t believe me.” She looks forlorn. “Dot could’ve told you,” she snaps. I smile, disheartened, we both know the trouble is Dot is gone. Long gone, gone like a runaway slave trekking north for freedoms he may or may not receive.
I think about Dot, John Henry the first and second, and my dearest grandmother, Essie Maude Harris. And I prayDot’s prayer for her. It felt like sorcery, it felt like empathy.
As I say the prayer, I know it will not save her, just as her prayers did not save those before her, but it feels right to say it anyway. It feels right that she should go dignified, like Dot, not kicking and screaming like her father, John Henry I, legs flailing “like an animal.”
The truth is she’s already kicking and screaming, in her own way.
“Stop, shhh” she insists. We stop our correspondence at once. It seems urgent.
“The baby is sleeping” she whispers, pushing her open palms down against the empty air as if to suppress the vibrations of our voices.
“What baby?” My mother asks.
Tipsy from our eggnog, we cackle at the question. We don’t have any babies, no babies live here.
“Now you know,” grandma throws both her hands up in the air in frustration; she’s through with us. My mother is the first to realize that in grandma’s mind, today, there is a baby. Ma strikes a deafening look in our direction and we hush up directly. Today, there is a baby.
Ma follows grandma on soft heels. Peeks her head into grandma’s bedroom. I peek over her shoulder. We don’t see much; just a cluttered room, a bed with stuffed blankets and TBN blasting from the television set.
Ma tiptoes over to the bed. Grandma’s chest rises and falls next to Ma’s lifeless wooden nutcracker. The two are wrapped tight underneath grandma’s quilt.
Today, grandma sees a baby, grandma hears a baby, we have a baby.
Sometimes our baby gets out of hand. This past Thanksgiving, we learned that Alzheimer’s often leads to paranoia. The thoughts in our baby’s head get all jumbled up and she loses sight of reality.
She’s starting to see things that don’t exist. There are men watching her in her bedroom, and she must escape them, but not without herself.
She grabs and relocates the things that remind her the most of herself; expensive jewels she inherited when she was a registered nurse to wealthy white people on Star Island, fancy church hats that were a little too nice to ever actually be worn.
We watch in disbelief. She ignores us until, “Grandma, come have a coke with me” I suggest. I pour her a can of coke. I pour the soda into a glass already filled with a shot of Jack. I don’t listen as I cut her a slice of store bought pie, but I know she is declaring her love for coke. An adoration that stems from her childhood when, “daddy used to us home colas from work.”
She sits at the dining room table and nibbles on the pie. Sips the coke contentedly. When she starts to scrunch up her face, I pour more coke into her glass. That settles it, softens the secret ingredient. She drinks happily, though she has never had a drink in her life. We come from a long line of Christians who serve apple cider as champagne, even at weddings.
“I used to make pies like this,” she says.
I tell her I remember. I don’t remind her that that was just last year, she’s only recently forgotten how to cook.
I pat her hand, “you used to make pies way better than this.”
Sometimes our baby is sweet as pie. I facetimed her from Orlando a little while ago. The concept of cellphones is entirely lost on her. She smashes numbers into the confounding device, holds it upside down, tilts her head to get a good look at me. Today, she doesn’t recognize me.
“Who’s this ‘lil girl?” She asks my mother who’s stumping around the kitchen throwing supper together. Ma doesn’t answer straight away.
I smile into the device, “it’s me grandma.”
“That’s Tiffy,” Ma yells from the kitchen. Grandma misses this, shrugs, “well, whoever she is, she really is a beautiful girl. Ain’t she Tracie?” She sits the obscure device down and wonders after my mother’s voice. Leaving me and the confounding device behind.
Sometimes our baby is rather wicked. My father recently purchased a parrot. The bird speaks Spanish, we speak English. He says “good morning” and “what cha doing” too loud while we are either still sleeping or too groggy to be proud of his expanding vocabulary. When we wake, we open his cage and he walks around on four frail toes as if he doesn’t even know flying is an option. His wings were clipped for so long, he doesn’t know they’ve grown back. He won’t bother to try them out. Grandma tiptoes around him, petrified.
When we put him back behind bars, she’s content, happy. She is bigger, stronger, and she wants him to know it. She pokes a spatula through the bars, taunts him with a smirk. I stop her and she laughs hysterically. “I beat him down earlier,” she tells me, “he took it though, like a lamb.”
My temper threatens to escape me, but instead of a harsh admonishment, tears come. “You can’t do that grandma,” I whisper.
She is still smirking at the caged bird. “I’m not a bad person,” she says, and I don’t know if she is speaking to me, the bird, or herself. But no, she is not a bad person.
The morning after is always difficult. Filled a combination of repressed rage and guilt. She walks into the living room where I am still lying on the sofa. Grandma moved into my room when I moved out, so I spend my vacations sleeping next to the bird on a sofa in the living room. I don’t mind, much.
“Morn’in ‘lil girl” She greets me sincerely.
My answers are short, my tone clipped. “Morning” I whisper back being cautious; careful not to make eye contact, lest she think we’re companions and take up the empty cowhide chair sitting across from me and my feathered friend.
“How’d ya sleep?” She’s trying to make small talk. She’s forgotten what she’d done, why I am angry with her. I, however, have the gift of remembering.
“Fine,” I mumble.
She tips over to the chair, unpeeling a brown banana. “What cha writing?”
I sigh, “a story.”
As she walks past, I am aware that she soiled herself in her sleep. I scrunch up my nose. Somehow this makes it easier to hate her.
“What’s your story about?”
“Nothing,” I reply as I close my notebook. And I suppose I too am a bit wicked. I could say I am regretfully wicked, and I am, but I doubt that changes things. Wicked, is, well wicked.
I pray Dot’s prayer for her, again. But this time, it isn’t for her really, this time I pray it for me, for us. I come from a long line of cowardly Christians, that is, people who ask Jesus to fix their problems in lieu of rectifying them themselves. So, I pay Dot’s prayer for my mother who is working nights to avoid having to fight with grandma about taking showers or hiding soiled pants. I pray Dot’s prayer for my father who is raising my mom’s mother while Ma’s avoiding her at work. I pray Dot’s prayer for me, so I can keep my mom and dad home, together, in love, together, as it has always been.
I pray Dot’s prayer as a clueless child would, but I am not clueless, nor am I a child, so I am not exactly sure what that makes me.
The morning after is always difficult. Filled with a combination of repressed rage and guilt.
I think of the God I used to know. I think of the baggage grandma has carried; a widower with five children, no formal education, no established relations- a homemaker for a mother and a father who murdered himself. The ceremonies she planned for the two children she buried. The two sons she has left fighting my mother for control of her estate, for what remains of her.
I think of the God she made me pray to as a little girl, and I imagine him bigger, stronger, prodding her feeble body with a stick. I wonder how it must feel to her, but mostly to him. If he swells with pride as she calls out to him, “the one who gives, and takes away.”
Grandma walks over towards the sofa. My mother suggests she kick her heels up in the leather chair across from the sofa instead. Tells her the chair sits up taller and thereby will be easier for her to maneuver her way out of later. The truth is, the sofa is fabric and the chair is leather. These days, grandma wets herself often and the leather chair is easier for Ma to clean.
I am visiting again. I have brought with me an old teddy bear my boyfriend gave me when we first began dating. He sprays the bear with his cologne and I carry the stuffed toy with me when I am away. The bear is sitting in the leather chair. Grandma picks him up and sits him on her knee.
“You take him with you everywhere you go?”
“Not everywhere,” I smile.
“What do you feed him?”
“He’s just a toy, grandma. I don’t feed him anything.”
She nods in consent, but continues bouncing the bear up and down on her knee. When I look up from my laptop, I see her whispering baby talk to the stuffed bear. Today, grandma sees a baby, grandma hears a baby, we have a baby.
Sometimes our baby wants to be an adult. This Saturday morning, our baby has decided that she wants to make her own breakfast. We’re proud, elated as we watch her limp around the kitchen. She must be feeling like old herself again.
I watch her rather intently, then I worry that she may feel my gaze on her. I turn my head and glance at her periodically through the corners of my eyes. Just yesterday, she retrieved an old candle from the trash and tried to microwave it as a snack. I am cautious, lest she make another blunder.
We worry that she may burn the house down, so my father shuts off the breakers when he is away. It never occurred to us that ostracizing her from typical daily functions would assist her mind in breaking itself down faster. She grabs the eggs from the refrigerator, then a pot.
“What kind of eggs are you making, grandma?”
“Scrambled,” she says.
I suggest the skillet that’s in the dishwasher instead of the pot. She thanks me and grabs the skillet. Sets it down on the stove.
We resume our correspondence momentarily. Mom is the first to realize that grandma’s disappeared. She saunters down the hall after her.
“What happened Mommy? I thought you were making yourself some eggs?”
“Well, I was gunna but then I figured I’d probably mess ‘em up. So, I left it alone.”
My mother pauses. “Well there’s nothing wrong with trying. You almost had it.” Mom walks back to the kitchen and makes our baby scrambled eggs, grits, and toast saturated in apricot jam.
In so many ways, we have failed, and continue to fail, our baby. There is something unnatural about begging your superior to shower, so we don’t. Yet, we stay far, far away from her when she doesn’t. We limit our visitors because we don’t know what kind of day she will have on any given day. I am not sure if we do this for her or for ourselves. We down play her mental ailments. Again, I am not sure if the shame is hers or ours.
It is difficult to process and deal with mental illness when you are an African American and a Christian. I only recently learned that grandma had a mental break in her early thirties, a hiccup that my mother dutifully kept secret from me and the remainder of our family. I too have suffered from metal complications: anxiety, depression, and the like. I recall revealing to my mother my obsession with self-harm when I was a teenager. I recall her telling me to pray more. To pray whenever I got the urge to slice razor blades into my flesh.
My mother is not the villain here. As an African American, mental illness is a weakness. A folly that befalls only those who are not strong enough to stare down their own demons. As a Christian, we are to believe that God will redeem us and save us from even the darkest parts of ourselves, so we kneel and we pray harder. Then, we wait. Some of us are still waiting.
There are two halves of my grandma. The half I knew and the half I know. The halve I knew, loved church. Not just on Sundays for a few hours in the morning. I am talking full blown, screaming and shouting, hooting and hollering from the noon to night, from dusk to dawn. Pentecostal church. The grandma I know, loves TBN, church tv. My new grandma loves her bed. She leaves it sparingly, mostly just for food. She and her food lie in her bulky Victorian bed and watch TBN from morning to noon, noon to night, dusk to dawn. Sometimes I try to convince her to leave the bed, to walk to the church next door with me. I hate church, but it is the one thing the grandma I knew loved. The grandma I know is always promising me tomorrow. She’ll go tomorrow. We’ll go tomorrow.
I wish so many things for grandma. Practical things that I fear are already beyond her reach. I wish the sun could shine on her. I wish she would lie in the wet sand on her flabby back and bask in the Florida heat. I wish she would imprint herself in the sand and stand in the ocean. It has only just occurred to me that I have never seen her at the beach.
I have seen her at church, at home. I thought I’d known her. We have traveled to family reunions, stood in the sun at funerals. I wonder if the halve I knew is even less than that, if perhaps it is only the halve I thought I knew. Because there must be something more to a person than family and faith. That cannot be the whole of a person, any person, can it? I fear the halve I knew is the only halve she ever knew. I fear she will die only knowing that small, tiny person.
Tiffany Knowles is a doctoral student at Murray State University. Tiffany studied creative writing at the University of Tampa and English Literature at Flagler College. She currently teaches Developmental English at Barry University. Tiffany resides in Florida where she assists in providing care to her grandmother who’s battling Alzheimers and Dementia.