Dementia.

I am twenty-five, and it is Easter, 2018. I am standing in Grandma’s empty living room.

Her house must have been broken into, ransacked, looted.

Tiny craters in the carpet stare up at me where the feet of her blue, floral couch once stood. The lace curtains are down, her reading chair covered in throw blankets is gone, and all that is left are a few paintings, an old record player, the dial phone on the counter, and the pink rhododendrons outside. I look in the garage and don’t see the croquet set leaning against the wall.

The ballet studio still has the floor and the bar, but the mirror is no longer there, no longer reflecting ballet slippers practicing fourth position. The pull-out couch has survived, but the bed is folded underneath the cushions. The closet with the blocks is empty but for mothballs.

The looters grabbed from every corner.

Mom’s voice breaks the silence, “I saved the small black car. Remember playing with that?”

I nod. A small souvenir.

I move toward my old napping room.

The bed is still there, but it’s stripped. The blue and pink quilt is gone, and the closet is empty—Grandma’s Sunday dresses aren’t hanging neatly inside anymore.

The door is still splintering at the bottom.

Finally, I go to Grandma’s room.

One breath.

Two.

The pictures and frames are gone—Mom’s eighth-grade school photo, Stan’s wedding picture, my little league picture. Her daughter, her son, her grandson—me—removed from the wall. The bed that used to face it is stripped too. Everything is stripped. The memories as well.

Exhale.

This could be the final time I walk through her house, and I almost wish I wouldn’t have. I wish I would have spent my last minutes in it when everything was there and intact—the croquet, the chair, the couch, the lace curtains, the bedding, everything.

Everything, including Grandma. I wish she was here now.

Mom says, over my shoulder, “It’s just not the same without her in here.”

It is not. It is not the same.

I don’t know what else to say, what else to feel. I’ve lost all language in this foreign place.

Looters be damned. 

I attend one of Grandma’s chapel services in her “new home.” Residents take turns requesting hymns to sing; Grandma requests “In the Garden,” her favorite hymn.

Pages shuffle and a soft silence rests in the room before the pianist begins to play. Grandma’s thin falsetto floats in the air as we sit side-by-side, my arm around her shoulders.

 I am seven and spending the day at Grandma’s home, forty-five minutes away from mine. It’s a small, tan-bricked single-story sitting on a street corner in Chandler, Oklahoma—one of those color-by-number houses they built in the late sixties for low-income families.

If I’m quiet, I can hear the train passing two blocks away.

I am kneeling on Grandma’s blue, floral couch in the living room and staring past her lace curtains outside, wishing for Mom and Dad to pull into the driveway. I don’t like it when they’re gone, especially when they’re all the way in Europe while my dad attends his professor conferences. I sleep wrapped in Mom’s robe, smelling her perfume, and this time she left a note on my pillow when she left—she said she loved me very much and would be home soon.

I fell asleep rubbing creases into the paper, crying and praying God would protect them.

I stare out the window, and my seven-year-old mind tenses and squeezes. There are times I feel folded up inside myself, unsure how to escape the worries rubbing creases into my brain. 

“Drew, why don’t you and I play some croquet?”

I turn and see Grandma smiling back at me. Her pastel yellow pants are pulled up really high, and she’s wearing her sandals with the heel strap—her official croqueting shoes.

I smile and nod, jumping off the couch and running to the garage to get the croquet set. Taylor—four—follows behind me, and Avery—two—looks on passively, her eyes barely visible beneath her big, blue sun hat.

I set about building the course around Grandma’s pink rhododendrons, squinting and tilting my head in the sun, concentrating on the way the wind is moving and the slight incline between her flower bed and the bush. Taylor follows me.

Grandma sits on the porch swing with Avery, and when it’s all set, she gets up and oohs and ahhs over the course I’ve made. She spreads her legs and brings the club back—crack—the croquet ball goes flying and we both laugh. Mine loud and free like a little kid’s. Hers a cackle, loud and free as well.

It is true; I am her grandson.

I come to the garden alone
While the dew is still on the roses
And the voice I hear, falling on my ear
The Son of God discloses. 

I am eleven, and the whole family—me and Mom and Dad and Taylor and Avery—is over at Grandma’s staying the night at the beginning of Christmas break.

“Drew, want to use the blocks and the car?”

I smile and nod as Taylor and I grab the two-gallon, green bucket of blocks out of the hall closet while Grandma gets the fingernail-sized black corvette from the small perch on the kitchen mirror.

We build a ramp as high as we can with the blocks and test the speed and jump of the little corvette as the adults talk about adult things: who’s marrying whom; whose mother passed last year from cancer; how it’s a shame the once beautiful home in the center of town is so run down. Grandma knows everything about Chandler, she was born here at the height of the Dust Bowl, eight years after Highway 7 cut through it, officially making it a dot on the map.

Chandler, Oklahoma—a place where people live.



Eventually Chandler became one of those rare Oklahoma towns to have both Route 66 and Turner Turnpike run through it—saving it from the economic collapse of towns not bisected by interstates. But Grandma was long gone by then, living in Oklahoma City with her new husband.

People got married, mothers passed away, and houses fell into disrepair, but Chandler still sat there, a dot on the map, even as Grandma moved from place to place, from Dallas to San Francisco to Boise to Seattle, having two kids seven years apart, Stan and DiAnn—my mom.

Taylor and I finish our ramp and yelp for Mom and Dad and Grandma to watch.

Avery sits next to us playing with the blocks we don’t need, getting annoyed with our shouts of discovery.

Finally, the adult conversation ends, I’m granted access to Grandma’s copper cookie jar, and I’m sent to bed on the pull-out in the tiny ballet studio.

It’s a small pull-out bed, and I like to imagine it was made specifically for me and my small, eleven-year-old body. I stare at the mirror, imagining Mom as a teenager. I imagine her toes pointed and her curly brown hair tied up tightly on the back of her head.

When an eleven-year-old Mom and Grandma moved in here in the mid-Seventies, Grandma had just returned to Chandler newly single, about to begin a life for two, and the house didn’t have a ballet studio—just a small room with a window looking out towards the pink rhododendrons.

So when Mom grew serious about ballet, Grandma enlisted the help of her father and turned that room, the first one on the left, across from the bathroom, into the studio, ripping out the carpet and replacing it with wood-like linoleum, installing a barre across one wall and purchasing a floor-to-ceiling mirror.

It was a room worthy of New York City—only the occasional train horn placed it on that corner in Chandler, Oklahoma.

I fall asleep staring into the mirror; the small-pull out perfectly encloses my small body. Mom pirouettes in and out of my consciousness.

I feel close to her and close to grandma and close to the past, like Oklahoma sunsets over prairies, sometimes near enough to touch and merge and dance.

 

And He walks with me
And He talks with me
And He tells me I am His own
And the joy we share as we tarry there
None other has ever known.

I am sixteen, and we are sitting in Grandma’s living room. I am on the blue floral couch next to Mom, my back to the lace curtains. Grandma is sitting in her gold chair with the throw blanket folded on its back. She is smiling, as usual; my eyes are drooping, as usual.

"Drew, why don't you go back there and take a nap?"

Grandma is worried I'm not getting enough sleep. The truth is, I'm getting too much sleep; my body is at war with my anxiety, and I don't know what it is doing or how to fix it.

What if I don’t live up to perfection.

What if people see I’m a fraud.

What if I fail.

I fear I will end up the subject of adult conversations in living rooms.

As a kid, I sat on this couch worried my parents wouldn’t come back from Europe. Now I sit here worried my joy will never come back either.

I stand up, rub the wrinkles out of my khakis, and head to the back room to take a nap.

The door is splintered at the bottom, and it doesn’t crack open. As I slide underneath the blue and pink quilt, the door sits ajar and I can hear the conversation continuing. Adult things.

The sun comes through the window with the pink rhododendrons on the other side. This was Mom’s room growing up, and it is my napping room now. It’s just across the hall from Grandma’s bedroom—with its shelves of old pictures and memories lining the walls.

I think about the many times I’ve slept at Grandma’s house as a kid, anxious about Mom and Dad being across the ocean, and how each morning—way too early—I would creep out and go to Grandma’s room. She would be sitting up in bed in the stillness of the sunrise, reading her Bible.

I would crack the door open and peer inside reverently. Holiness wasn’t yet a part of my vocabulary, but I could sense it when I was near it.

She would look up, and give a mischievous grin.

She would whisper, “Good morning, Drew. Come up here!”

We were like two kids breaking the rules. I would tip-toe over and climb up in bed, my bare feet worthy of holy ground.

“Tell me a story about mom as a little girl,” I would say.

“Well, let me think.”

She would begin to talk, and I would burrow deeper and deeper into her side.

She talked about the big meals on the farm on Sundays with my great-grandparents and how Mom would eat a whole bunch and then eat even more, sitting with her grandad in the living room with a plate of cookies between them. She told me about the time the family pug dog, Pugsy, got angry at Mom and peed on her pillow. Grandma would cackle, and I would too—plastered into her side, our ribs and shoulders would shake together.

Sometimes, instead of stories about Mom as a girl, Grandma would talk about what it was like when she was little. How she would creep out of bed and go to the big radio in the living room, turning it on as low as possible to listen to the Saturday morning serials and not wake her parents. She told me of a Chandler without the Sonic Drive-In or the big Ford dealership with its pickups gleaming white. She talked about the drug store her father owned on Main Street, Wright Drug—the same place she would first work when returning with Mom—and what it was like to sit at a soda fountain and drink an old-fashioned float.

I would close my eyes and imagine being with her back then, walking on Main Street bricks embroidered with “Do Not Spit” and “No Littering.” Talking about school or church or Oklahoma Summers. Watching the sun scorch the weeds reaching up through the cracks and towards our toes.

Then I would open my eyes and lean further into her warmth, looking at the picture frames lining the shelves around her room. Mom’s eighth-grade school photo, Stan’s wedding picture, my little league picture.

God put Moses in the cleft of the rock while he passed by. I think he put me in Grandma’s side.

The talk in the living room interrupts my memories, and I am suddenly sixteen again. I don’t know how she was so strong, how her side could hold me so close. I can’t imagine how she made it, moving from suburban yards and private schools and nearby cities to a hometown filled with childhood memories and childhood people.

People who talked about adult things in living rooms as children played with blocks.

But hidden in her side, Grandma’s petite figure was so strong, so all-encompassing.

Graciously, I fall into sleep with the sun covering the blue and pink quilt as it covers me. I think of those times in Grandma's bed—a seven-year-old safe in her side—and I think of the verse she often repeats over me in her preferred King James.

Casting all your care upon Him; for He careth for you.

He does. Him and Grandma both. They both care for me.

They are both places of strength, places to rest.

He speaks and the sound of His voice
Is so sweet the birds hush their singing
And the melody that He gave to me
Within my heart is ringing.

I am nineteen and in my first year of college in California—far from Oklahoma. Grandma’s voice cuts through the air and into my phone, and I imagine her at her counter, the receiver to her old dial phone in her hand.

“Drew, you know what the Bible says? It says that we are to cast all our cares on him, for he careth for us.” She always punctuates each word at the end of a sentence with a gentle staccato when she makes a point.

I’m standing outside by the slackline, and the cold February air envelops me. After a semester spent studying at a college outside Los Angeles, I decide to escape to Yosemite for a semester of rigorous philosophy and theology. I am desperately missing home. The anxiety that swarmed my seven-year-old body waiting for Mom and Dad and my sixteen-year-old body craving sleep has dressed up and put on a suit—donning the disguise of grown-up worries.

What am I going to do with my life?

What do I actually believe about God and the Bible?

What if I’m wrong?

My worries rub creases into my brain, and I fold inside my jacket as I talk to Grandma.

“I just miss you and the family a lot. I don’t know if I can do this much longer.”

“You know, Drew, worry is a sin. God doesn’t want us to worry because he wants to hold all of our worries. Every last one. He looks after the sparrows and the lilies. And he loves you more than them. I know he watches over you.”

Her words feel out of place; picture frames on the shelves of a past-faith, a simple faith that left me when I left Oklahoma. I was raised on this type of belief, but now I live surrounded by books emblazoned with big names making big claims. They tell me I need to shed simplicity; I need to become one of them: erudite, self-assured, bombastic. “Cast your cares on him” feels dwarfed by the four-syllable words used by those philosophers and theologians.

My panic attacks are growing more regular, and I don’t feel strong at all.

How far removed am I from her side? Is it too late to go back to listening to the simple stories of childhood, of pug dogs and family radios? Right now, in this moment, I feel my life is a distant echo from hers; I am reaching back but the canyon is too wide, the darkness feels too deep.

She mentions turning seventy-five in a few months.

“Grandma, seventy-five is the new fifty.”

She cackles. “Oh is that so? Well I am feeling older.”

“Don’t say that! You are young and lively!”

“Well, Drew, I am ready for heaven. I am ready to meet Jesus and be with him.”

Suddenly, the night is punctured and the stars drain. The darkness folds in on itself as I fold further into my jacket.

I cry.

One breath.

Her words blur together.

Two.

I know she means it.

Three.

She finishes talking, and I say between silent sobs, “No, Grandma, don’t say that. I need you to be around for my college graduation and my wedding and to meet your great-grandchildren.”

“Oh, Drew, I want to be here for that too, but I’m also looking forward to heaven and Jesus.”

I begin to cry harder, but I don’t want her to know I’m upset. I can’t keep talking—she’ll be able to tell—my breaths are too staggered.

“Hey Grandma, I gotta go, okay?”

I hang up, sucking in Yosemite air, my soul stripped to the stars’ and heaven’s whims. All the fancy theologians and philosophers fade to black, immaterial in the brightness of my grief, in the grip of my only thought: She can’t leave.

She, the woman who got up before the sun every morning to spend time with Jesus.

She, the woman who lost a lifestyle and a husband in one swipe but raised a daughter to be a full human and wonderful mother.

She, whose sides were worn by survival and made strong by love.

She can’t leave because it is her faith I long for. It is her pace I want to match. It is her kind eyes I want to emulate. The world can have its philosophy and its success. It can craft great towers to the sky, built on four-syllable words and vain promises. It can keep my bookshelf as ransom. May it be burnt up for the sake of a faith like Grandma’s.

She can’t leave.

I am her grandson.

And He walks with me
And He talks with me
And He tells me I am His own
And the joy we share as we tarry there
None other has ever known.

I am twenty-five, and it is the Thursday before Easter, 2018.

Grandma is sitting in her reading chair covered in throw blankets. I am sitting on her blue floral couch.

I am struck with how much this “new home” feels like Grandma's old one. If I squint my eyes and tilt my head, I can momentarily believe it is. I can momentarily believe it is her small, tan, brick home on the corner in Chandler, Oklahoma.

Perhaps if I'm quiet enough I'll hear the train go by two blocks away.

But I am not a fool. I know the train whistle will not come.

Chandler, Oklahoma—a dot on the map—smaller now with one less person.



Chandler, Oklahoma—a place where Grandma lived.


The conversation begins and leads to her old silk curtains hanging (now) to my left. Sidewalk and grass greet me on the other side, not pink rhododendrons.

“Your dad put up that…that…” Grandma’s voice trails off as she searches her brain for the word.

“Curtain rod,” Mom helps.

“Yes, yes that’s the word. Curtain rod.”

Each time I come home to visit, her vocabulary shrinks a little more, like the pages of her brain’s dictionary are being ripped out one-by-one.

One of the earliest words to go was “grandson.” She doesn’t remember what I am to her, but she still remembers me, which I figure is what really matters.

“I always tell, ummm….”

“Brady.”

“Yes, Brady. I tell Brady that he takes after me because he loves to read.”

She cackles, young and free, and Mom and I laugh too because she laughs. This is the third time she’s said this, and it is the third time she has forgotten my littlest brother’s name.

There are twelve library books stacked up on the counter of her kitchenette. She says she has gone through all but two in three days. Mom and I aren’t sure how much she is able to actually retain.

Mom takes over the conversation, “Mom, you got a letter in the mail.”

She passes Grandma a neatly written card.

Grandma opens it, reads it, and shakes her head, confused.

“Oh, it’s that couple from that one church writing me again. I don’t know why they keep sending me letters. It’s very nice of them, but I only visited that church three or four times.”

I look at Mom, and she shakes her head slightly.

Grandma is talking about First Baptist Chandler. The church she attended for fifteen years before moving closer to Mom and Dad.

That’s new with this visit.

It seems, along with the dictionary, the furniture and picture frames of her brain are being removed one-by-one. I always assumed they were fixed and immoveable, but I blink and find someone has taken her chair. I blink again and it is her couch missing. Again and it's her curtains.

Eventually it will be Mom’s eighth-grade photo, Stan’s wedding day picture, my little-league picture.

My face.

Someone is looting the place and leaving her behind, confused and unable to call her grandson because she doesn’t remember that word.

Looters be damned.

We finish talking with Grandma and get up to go. She hugs me tight and says softly, “Oh, I wish you lived closer.”

My heart sinks.

“I wish I lived closer too, Grandma. But I feel like God wants me where I’m at right now.”

We pull away from the hug, and she looks me in the eyes, her hands holding my shoulders.

“Now, Drew, that is the most important thing. Follow what God wants for you. That’s what I want.”

She doesn’t remember that phone call in Yosemite, and she doesn’t remember where I went to college or why I live in California. But she knows I love God. And she knows He loves me more than the sparrows or the lilies. And she’s content with that.

I pray I am content knowing God watches over her too.

She says she wants to walk us out, so I put my arm around her shoulder, and she puts her head onto my chest. We are back on her bed, but this time she is the one burrowing into my side.

She was always strong enough, though. I am afraid I am not.

We walk out her front door and into the hallway. A portable nurse’s station sits two doors down as a reminder of where we are, her “new home.” We pass by a nurse who smiles and says hello to Grandma.

“This is my grandson,” Grandma proudly tells him.

This time she remembered the word.

I'd stay in the garden with Him
'Tho the night around me be falling
But He bids me go; through the voice of woe
His voice to me is calling.

She heard the call at seventy-five, on that phone call in Yosemite.

And now, as the night around her begins to fall, I am beginning to hear it too. He is bidding her to go.

I am grieving.

But even in the midst of my grief, in the midst of my woe, I here His voice calling her, still. And it is a good voice.

Grandma will one day soon get her wish, and her thin falsetto will sing through heaven’s garden,


And He walks with me
And He talks with me
And He tells me I am His own
And the joy we share as we tarry there
None other has ever known.

Amen.

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