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I’ve been doted on and loved and pampered, but that’s the story that a five-year old girl clings to now. Pink fairy wings flutter as I dance in the sunlight flickering through Nana’s curtains. Nana, my father’s mother, has chicken with salsa on the stove, and the whole apartment is warm and safe. Nana lets me taste the food as she lowers the spoon from the pan, blowing gently on it before I taste. The juices slightly roll down the side of my chin and Nana catches it with a napkin. Food, solving crossword puzzles, the hum of Spanish music, and Nana’s loving embrace. I was her Renita and she was my Nana. Seeing Grandma, mama’s mom, in the summer and Nana during the year meant having the best of both women and insight into the deepest of me.

Nana and Grandma are very different women. Both are beautiful, intelligent, religious, and generous. Nana is passive aggressive and submissive; Grandma is the reckoning and a raging fire bursting free with every breath. Summers with Grandma were spent with me challenging myself to do and be more. I saw matinee movies my parents would not permit, ate delicious, greasy Southern meals, there was no bedtime and there were endless hours of humor with Grandma. Always typically shy, she encouraged me to speak for myself, read out loud or just give my opinion. I was Rina. Her Rina–named after her mother and beloved. I can still remember her brushing my hair in long soothing strokes with her right hand followed by slow caresses with her left hand across the crown of my head. It was our time - me in my Disney princess nightgown, hair perfectly parted down the middle, taking in every caress.

Gentle hair caresses and dancing pink fairy wings couldn’t last forever. Nana’s memory faded slowly like dust gathering in a corner. Dishes were placed in random spots and clothes and gifts were misplaced. Unlike Nana, Grandma changed by her inaction. She went from being constantly in motion, to moving slower, to having a stroke and being completely bedridden. I faded into the background for both of them. Nana was preoccupied with her memory loss and Grandma wanted to break free of the strokes, the confinement of rehab, our home and then her bed. Nana doesn’t remember events or her relationship with people.

They became shadows of who I knew. Nana is a recluse, silently working from bed on the crossword puzzles we used to solve together. I’m the person she now whispers about to Papa as being lazy. She no longer calls me Renita, although I tidy her bathroom, keep her from wandering and bring her dinner every night. Grandma fought and fought but the strokes won in the end. She has suffered multiple strokes, refused any nursing care, taken running leaps out of the bed and stopped taking any medicine (which she affectionately refers to as poison). She graduated from hospice and sits peacefully in her room transfixed by the television. Mom, Dad and I are her caregivers now. I change and feed her without her ever referring to me as Rina. She doesn’t brush my hair anymore and doesn't know my name.

I have laughed, I have cried, I have changed, but most importantly I have survived these lessons of love. I know the monster in this story is illness and dementia, but blame does not give solace. What do you do when death has not come for the ones you love but you are dead to them? You see them. You can touch them, but they no longer know your name. It scars and bruises you, but bruises are better than open sores and my love for Nana and Grandma remains.

© Cathrine Gonzalez. All rights reserved. If you are interested in quoting this story, contact the national team and we can put you in touch with the author’s teacher.