“What day is it?” she asks a nurse who brings her medication.
“It’s Sunday sweetie,” says the nurse, who hands her a paper medication cup. “Here, take this.”
Lucille smiles and takes a tablet, places it on her tongue, and with an exaggerated grimace, sips water from a bent straw in a plastic tumbler.
“It’s stuck,” she says, wrinkling her nose and sipping again.
“You always say that,” laughs the nurse. “Take another drink.”
Lucille hands the glass back to Rachel, the nice nurse.
“You need anything else?” asks Rachel.
Lucille thinks for a moment and then says, “I’m cold,” more to prolong the interaction than to address the temperature in the eighty-degree room.
Rachel dutifully adjusts Lucille’s shawl and the blanket on her legs.
“Is that all sweetie?”
Lucille nods and thanks her, then asks,
“What day is it?”
“It’s Sunday. Don’t you have a visitor on Sundays?” she says.
“Yes!” Lucille smiles and says, “Thank you honey.”
From the comfort of her favorite chair she stares at snowflakes gently falling through the light that spills from her window into the adjacent courtyard. The giant flakes swirl in the fading daylight, mingling with a few windblown brown leaves into small, unseen drifts against the north wall of the Hope building. The way they appear and disappear in the shaft of fluorescent light is vaguely reminiscent. She frowns as the tantalizing recollection slips from her mental grasp and like the snow, is lost from view.
She spends her days alone in a place of unfamiliar faces and the stench of excrement and antiseptic cleanser. Her fading memories fall to the gleaming tile floor, swept away each night like her small collection of paper napkins, straws and sugar packets. Her minor hoarding provides her with a limited sense of control over her surroundings now that many of her life’s pleasures are forgotten. Fortunately, so are many of her pains.
As the holiday season approaches, the silence and darkness of the night close in like a quilted blanket at the end of another cycle in what seems an endless day of days. She has outlived most of her family and friends. The time and place she occupies have become strangers. The curse of advancing dementia offers a blessing that shields her from thoughts best left unremembered. Even her window affords her a blank slate with an unstimulating view.
We walk slowly past countless closed and open doors and nameless wrinkled faces. Across a darkened courtyard window Grandma waits, standing now and shuffling between her bed and the window, backlit like an image on a television screen and slumping forward with rounded shoulders to study her uncertain footing. It is at this very spot in an hour or so that she will watch us leave, tugging at a sleeve or pocket to produce a mandatory white silk square. She will wave that handkerchief in a personal semaphore to bid us on our way as we grow smaller and eventually disappear around a bend in the hallway. Such has always been her way.
Her eyes sparkle as we begin the hour in a hundred we find to spend together. Those moments we manage to wrench from our seasonal chores are not relinquished easily. At the end of an hour of nagging sorrow and a dozen repetitions of the same conversation we are forced to leave despite her protests. Still, we harvest a beam of sunlight she sowed and nurtured long ago. She shares stories in a season that draws those memories closer, providing kindling for a long-term memory that blazes in her mind beyond the short-term vacuum of today and the expanding gulf that lies between the present and the past.
“Do you remember,” she begins, “the year it snowed like tonight?”
I turn my head toward the window to forge the connection.
“That turkey was a big one,” she says, “…almost didn’t fit in the oven.” She glows with pride and glistens with tears of joy.
I look into my wife’s eyes, signaling, “Help me remember this. Be my witness, because this is going to tear at the very heart of me.” She nods her understanding and takes my hand.
Grandma proceeds to relate, with surprising clarity and detail, a tale of the most magical of my Thanksgivings. It begins, sandwiched one frigid automobile journey between two slices of warmth called home and Grandma's house.
Under a sky, darkening gray, the bellies of clouds swell with the promise of snow. Familiar landmarks drift past the right side of the family car. I sit gazing outward from the back seat, alternately pressing my nose against the cold glass of the window and creating a circle of foggy breath in which one gloveless hand un-paints various letters and shapes. Vanishing in the heat of the car's interior, one exhaled "Haaaah" brings my tracings back to life and I either modify or swipe the moisture aside with my hand to renew the canvas.
The passing scenery appears artificial as it scrolls from left to right beyond the shoulder of the road. Once we close and lock the doors we are transported by some unknown means that Daddy accomplishes. We cross the Chicago River at a point where he comments that Great Grandma's grave is past the woods in a cemetery not far from where we are headed. Daddy's grandma. I am too young to understand how he could have one. I pause in silence for a moment to peer through my window drawings at the spot where perhaps I can glimpse this lady who is somehow more of a grandma than my own.
It is at this point that we realize we’re getting closer. And Mommy seems to know it too, for she begins to help Daddy drive the car, telling him which way to turn and reading the names of streets as we pass them. Daddy invariably makes funny faces. No matter how many other cars as big and round as ours we see, he always manages to get us to our destination and bring us safely home again.
Grandma lives on the second floor of a six-flat near Clark Street in the city. Hers is the brown brick house with leaded stained-glass inserts on each side of a heavy wooden door. There are eight wide polished marble stairs up to the second-level landing and another massive entrance that emits a funny buzzing noise when it is time for us to enter. Emerging from the car, our Noah's ark, two children and two parents separate at this point as my big sister and I take off for Grandma's door. She stands above and to our left in the window of her front porch, glowing as we spot her, waving and turning to reach for the buzzer while Mommy and Daddy fumble over shopping bags in the trunk of the car.
We wait impatiently as parents struggle with the heavy entryway. The musty wooden aroma of the foyer soaks us to the skin, melding with the fragrant potpourri of cooking smells that wash over us as grandparents stand aside, anxiously beckoning us inward.
What follows is a blur of hugs and treats and kisses and affection and food. The six of us create the commotion of sixty. Grandma works her yearly magic in the kitchen, shooing us away from underfoot, teasing with dishes of impossibly large olives, green and black, a glimpse of whipped cream, butterscotch and pumpkin pies, and a white Wedgwood boat of giblet gravy. A bag of candy is tucked up under the supports of the dining room table where only I can crawl to find it, coaxing a smile from the serious chef upon its discovery and my resultant joy. At the kitchen counter she hand-whips a mountain of steaming mashed potatoes while Grandpa withdraws the perfectly browned and sizzling, dripping bird from the oven for eventual carving.
With fifty years of far from perfect intervening Thanksgivings, I imagine myself enter the scene at this point in the story. Even in Grandma’s telling, it is clear that I am acting out the starring role. Through the clatter of passing dishes, knives and forks, giggles, compliments, and seasonal conversation, I ache with knowing how quickly it will pass and long to bring pause for a moment to the seeming perfection that we achieve together.
In the voice of my younger self, I speak to my family of then with words from now through the little man who took for granted all that happened on that marvelous day. From my place at one corner of the massive table I issue a non sequitur during a brief break in the conversation.
"Oh, how I miss you all so very much."
And the look of love and pride in the eyes of those whose voices have since been stilled by time or circumstance turn to me and briefly speak in ghostly unified response to my quizzical remark.
"Yes, honey, we know, we miss you too..."
“The table’s not that long, stupid,” chides my sister, playing for a laugh.
The meal continues as it was meant to be while a rare and glorious November snow drifts quietly against the building under a window where we sit and eat our Thanksgiving dinner. There has never since been a snow like that, so gentle, soft and slowly turning, lacy-white against the black-draped streetlights. Nor has there been another gathering so exquisitely choreographed and performed. And then it was over.
The flakes cling to our hats and lashes, muffling our laughter and footsteps as we stroll so very slowly to the car. And while I climb into the auto and up onto the rear deck beneath the large and curving window, stretching lengthwise on my back, Grandma searches her sleeve and pockets to produce a mandatory white silk square. I fix my eyes skyward at the spot where the cascading flakes enter the city streetlight. I turn and wave my mittened hand to Grandma as we pull away. The flakes thicken as the distance grows between us. Her timeless silky white turns into snowy gray.
As blocks and miles and time pass far behind us, in the snow that strobes above me from light to light in hypnotic intervals of bright and dark, I drift to sleep and dream of another trip to Grandma's and wonder when the snow, her snow, will come again.
We pass again down the corridor of endless doors and faces. We turn to look through a courtyard window and past the gently falling snow, illuminated against the blackness of the night. Back in the room we’ve just left, Rachel helps Lucille to her feet and leads her to her bed. They pause and turn at an unheard command. I’m sure she sees us. I search my pockets for a white silk square and wave goodbye to Grandma.