I never thought that I understood her. She always seemed so far away from me. I loved her, of course. We shared mutual love from the day I was born.
I was told that I came into this world with a bashed head and deformed features because of the hard labor my mother had gone through. It took months before my features went back to normal and I would be a beautiful baby. Family members and friends wrinkled their noses at the disfigured baby they saw come into the world. They all commented on how much I looked like a beat-up football player. But no, not her. Nana thought I was beautiful. Her eyes twinkled with splendor and happiness at the ugly baby in her arms. Her first granddaughter. Beautiful, she said.
Before final exams in my junior year of high school, she died.
Seven years earlier, her doctors had diagnosed Nana with Alzheimer’s disease. Our family became experts on this disease as, slowly, we lost her.
She always spoke in fragmented sentences. As the years passed, the words she spoke became fewer and fewer, until finally she said nothing at all. We were lucky to get one occasional word out of her. It was then that our family knew she was near the end.
About a week or so before she died, her body lost the ability to function at all, and the doctors decided to move her to a hospice. A hospice: where those who enter never come out.
I told my parents I wanted to see her. I had to see her. My uncontrollable urge to see her, had taken a step above my gut-wrenching fear.
My mother brought me to the hospice two days later. My grandfather and two of my aunts were there as well, but they hung back in the hallway as I entered Nana’s room. She was sitting in a big, fluffy chair next to her bed, slouched over, eyes shut, mouth numbly hanging open. The morphine was keeping her asleep. My eyes darted around the room at the windows, the flowers and the way Nana looked. I was struggling very hard to take it all in, knowing that this would be the last time I ever saw her alive.
I slowly sat down across from her. I took her left hand and held it in mine, brushing a stray lock of golden hair away from her face. I just sat and stared, motionless, in front of her, unable to feel anything. I opened my mouth to speak but nothing came out. I could not get over how awful she looked, sitting there helpless.
Then it happened. Her little hand wrapped around mine tighter and tighter. Her voice began what sounded like a soft howl. She seemed to be crying in pain. And then she spoke.
“Jessica.” Plain as day. My name. Mine. Out of four children, two sons-in-law, one daughter-in-law and six grandchildren, she knew it was me.
At that moment, it was as though someone were showing a family filmstrip in my head. I saw Nana at my baptizing. I saw her at my fourteen dance recitals. I saw her bringing me roses and beaming with pride. I saw her tap-dancing on our kitchen floor. I saw her pointing at her own wrinkled cheeks and telling me that it was from her that I inherited my big dimples. I saw her playing games with us grandkids while the other adults ate Thanksgiving dinner. I saw her sitting with me in my living room at Christmas time, admiring our brightly decorated tree.
I then looked at her as she was . . . and I cried.
I knew my grandmother would never see my final senior dance recital or watch me cheer for another football game. She would never sit with me and admire our Christmas tree again. I knew she would never see me go off to my senior prom, graduate from high school and college, or get married. And I knew she would never be there the day my first child was born. Tear after tear rolled down my face.
But above all, I cried because I finally knew how she had felt the day I had been born. Everyone thinks I am beautiful now. But she thought I was beautiful, when I was a mess. She had looked through what she saw on the outside and looked instead to the inside and she had seen a life.
I slowly released her hand from mine and brushed away the tears staining her cheeks and mine. I stood, leaned over and kissed her and said, “You look beautiful.”
And with one long last look, I turned and left the hospice, renewed with my grandmother’s spirit. I knew from then on, every person I met, I would see a spirit, a soul, a story and a life. My grandmother had passed the baton.
Jessica Gardner (c) 1998 From Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul II