Forgetting Grandma

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It was my first backpacking trip abroad, a one-year trek through Central and South America, and I did a very bad thing. For the first six weeks I was away, I didn't call or write my grandma. Not once.

It's worth mentioning I grew up in the deep South, where not checking in with your grandmother regularly is about as acceptable as shunning grits or hating college football.

Like most folks in their nineties, Maw Maw wasn't on email. And I was too busy with Spanish, surfing, and senoritas to figure out how to use one of the local pay phones.

To say the least, it wasn't my best moment as a grandson. Finally, I got around to calling.

Who knows what made me do it. There's so much of my grandma floating around in my head, it could have been anything. The sight of a well-used bible, perhaps, like the one she made me memorize verses from as soon as I could read. Or maybe the smell of Wrigley's Doublemint gum, the sugary stuff she forever carried in her purse for my big brother, Todd, and I. A million tastes and sights and smells produce thoughts of the woman who babysat me from the time I was one until the day I started kindergarten and well beyond.

Whatever the reason, I finally called her, and I did so with not a little trepidation. It's likely my grandma and I had ever gone so long without communicating. We were close. We were letter writers. Hand holders. Secret keepers. And no one needed to point out to me that I had done wrong.

It just wasn't right. I knew this, and I prepared myself for the consequences. It did help to know she couldn't reach me through the phone with a switch from one of the plum trees behind her house she always threatened us with (she never did actually use one, though we no doubt deserved it constantly).

The phone rang. And then it rang again and again. Sweat ran down my face into the receiver.

Then she answered. I braced myself.

In an instance, one I'll never forget, the worry melted away. The second I heard her voice with her usual "Hey, Kip!"--not just "hey" but "Hey!"--I knew all was forgiven. It is as unmistakable as it is unforgettable, that voice. Laden with love, compassion and the truest of southern comforts, and always accompanied by a smile broader than any bayou back home. I didn't need to see her to know she was beaming from ear to ear.

Sadly, that phone call happened a long time ago. Much has changed since then.

Five years ago this week, I went to visit my grandma in the nursing home where doctors said she had to stay, after living with my folks for nearly 10 years. I walked in, and immediately it was clear something wasn't right. She didn't welcome me with her usual greeting. I didn't get a "Hey!" or even a simple hello. No hint of a smile crossed her face. Instead, she looked worried, a little scared, maybe, when she saw me enter the room, as if she had done something wrong or she was about to get into serious trouble but couldn't figure out why.

The fact of the matter was, she didn't even recognize me, wouldn't have known me from Adam. That's the way it is with Alzheimer's patients, which is what my Maw Maw had become.

Was it painful? Yeah, it was painful. Like when a tractor runs over your foot painful.

But this time, unlike the first time it happened a few months before, I was better prepared. This time, I'd strapped on my steel-toe boots, I protected those parts of my body and mind that could feel and doubt and think, and I walked straight up to her and without a second of hesitation, and I shouted loud enough for the whole Alzheimer's unit to hear, "Hey, Maw Maw! It's me, your grandson, Kip. I missed you!"

And for an instant, a smile more comforting as any smile before seen on this earth took over her beautiful face, and I knew, just as she must have, that all was right with the world.

In that split second, we were both okay again. No hard feelings, no guilt, no regrets. Just then, my grandma had her grandson, her long lost memory. And me, well, I had my grandma back, if only for a second. And that was enough.