Students of memory today hold that past experience is necessarily—both psychologically and neurologically—constructed anew in each memory event or act of recall.
~ Paul John Eakin
The last year he was alive, my family went to see my grandfather in the hospital on Christmas. He had dementia and the bright colored shards of his mind had scattered. We brought his presents and we all had rosy cheeks and mittens and we were noisy with smiles. After a while, he looked around at us in angry confusion and growled, Why are you all here? His eyes wild, not like anyone I knew.
It’s Christmas, one of us said. We came to see you.
Well, you saw me, he spat. Now get out.
I had been away for many years, only visiting during the holidays and perhaps a short time during a summer. So when he turned on us, I wondered this: at what point did the tunnels in his brain finally take away the essential person he was? Until then, I could only see small changes over time, mostly forgetfulness. At dinner, to my grandmother’s dismay, he would pick up a fork and start eating as soon as a plate was put in front of him instead of waiting for everyone to be served. She was traditional in that way, and shrieked, Lou! At those moments I remember him—before anger took over—like a puppy being scolded. He looked shocked, having no idea what had prompted her anger. He looked lost.
He loved to tell stories, and he told many of the same ones again and again. His family emigrated from Aleppo, Syria, and though he rarely spoke of Syria, his acclimation to life in the United States was a frequent topic. The youngest child, he was the first to master the English language. He was also a bit of a troublemaker. Once, after some incident at school, he was brought in to translate for his teacher so she could speak to his mother. It didn’t take either of them long to figure out his translation wasn’t exactly accurate. He’d laugh at this, shake his head at the boy he was.
A young man with a version of his face smiles out in black and white. My grandfather is standing with a group of other soldiers in New Guinea, where he fixed airplanes. It was a war, but he looks happy.
Did he lose himself when the tunnels in his brain became bigger, like wormholes? When he was transported back and actually became his younger self, whole decades of his life lost, then recovered, then lost again? When he remembered again, had his memories become transformed, his remembered life different from his actual experiences?
We laughed in the early years because we didn’t realize how much my grandmother was hiding, trying to protect him or trying to deny what was happening. And no one wanted to bring anything darker into the holiday than might already be there under the surface. My family is masterful at acting as if all is well. We all covered for him, though I’m not sure why. Probably because we, too, didn’t want to imagine his life disappearing before us, story by story. Who would we be without him?
In the kitchen one afternoon cleaning up after the post-holiday lunch I kept catching a whiff of something rancid. We searched the refrigerator and found several likely culprits and threw them in the trash. But I have a keen sense of smell and I knew whatever it was still lurked. My mother and I went on a search and finally located the source: a single hotdog placed inside a carton of quart-size baggies, but never put in plastic and into the refrigerator.
In his essay “My Father’s Brain,” Jonathan Franzen writes of his father’s descent into Alzheimers. He remarks that he needed his father to retain some sense of selfhood: “I think I was inclined…to persist in seeing him as the same old wholly whole Earl Franzen. I still needed him to be an actor in the story of myself.”
When I was a child, we went to Paterson, NJ, one winter, to see where my grandfather had grown up. I remember a brick factory, the enormous spools of thread, and the crashing noise of machines. The story he was telling by taking us to that mill was one of poverty—his sisters having to work there at an early age—but I didn’t understand. I mostly wanted to buy an old spool from the shop.
Some narrative theorists suggest that we are who we narrate ourselves into being. So when his stories became lost is that when he disappeared?
The last time I saw him was that Christmas day in the hospital. Other people now narrated his life; the staff told us that he had punched a nurse—something so out of character as to seem unbelievable to me. Except that I’d seen the flicker of anger when he looked at us, surrounded by gifts he couldn’t understand as anything but a mess on his bed and our loud cheer that had no connection to anything anymore. The entire holiday had been erased from his mind, and with it all the memories of Christmases past. He was seeing a different world through the glass now. No one could show him, as the ghosts had Scrooge, who he had been or what he had become. He had become the ghost. He was an empty building, the lights turning out on each floor, one by one.
Once I died in a dream, scattering outward as though each molecule was its own shooting star. In another, a field in front of me was filled with old doors stuck into the earth at odd angles. Graves that opened into an unknown past, present, and future set before me. How could I choose which to walk through?
Many years ago, when I left her house, my grandmother paused in the hallway and looked at me pensively. She was wearing her familiar blue quilted bathrobe. She said, We’ve had a good life together, haven’t we? As though she was preparing herself. And now every time I walk out a door, I think, I’ll never see you again.
At the wake, in the coffin, my grandfather’s mouth turned down so that he looked stern—a wrong version of him. I couldn’t stop looking. Now he looks back at me with his real smile from a photograph on my refrigerator while I play the guitar and cry. I rock forward on the off beats, Make your smile sweet to see / don’t you take this away—
Every holiday meal in my own memory has a red and gold tablecloth and set of cranberry glass dishes. I learned at a museum recently that the color of cranberry glass is made from pieces of gold. The tiny pieces of glass it is melted with is called frit. My grandfather’s brain might have been as scattered as frit, but still there were flashes of gold for as long as he could hold onto them. I also learned that heated glass creates its own luminescence, and this, too, reminds me that even transformed, he shines.
Kate Schmitt earned her M.F.A. and Ph.D. from the University of Houston. She is a visual artist as well as a writer, and her book Singing Bones has just been published by Zone 3 Press. Her writing has also appeared in a number of anthologies and literary journals, including Third Coast, The Florida Review, and Louisiana Literature. She grew up in New Hampshire and Hong Kong and now lives in Florida, where she teaches creative writing at Florida Atlantic University.