A Glass Full of Water

Grandma didn’t recognise me at the dinner table today.

Perhaps she sensed from the interactions of everyone at the table that I am someone known to the family, a normal part of the family, that I’ve been there all along but she just cannot recall who I might be. Our helper said that multiple times Grandma looked like she wanted to say something, as she glanced in my direction every now and then, slight confusions crossing her face.

But she’s always quick to hide it. If anyone asks, she brushes it off. She doesn’t want her “vulnerability” of not being able to remember to be noticed by others.

Almost a decade ago my Grandma was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease. My parents and I began to notice it when she visited us in Shanghai and stayed with us for three months. It started out small, with her misplacing things and constantly forgetting where the laundry machine was, then packing up my hairbrush into her luggage thinking it was her’s. She would get frustrated with herself and exclaim, “What is going on with me?”

As years went by, Grandma slowly reverted into a child. Having Alzheimer’s meant that her memory was like a glass full of water – as you pour in more, it overflows. She couldn’t retain new memories for a long time, but one part of her almost always stayed constant even till now: her childhood.

Grandma was the youngest child in the family, pampered with parental love and protected by her older siblings. She loved to dance and was often asked by her school to perform at events. When I was a kid, Grandma often told me this story over and over again: “We used to have hair length restrictions in school. Girls couldn’t grow their hair longer than their ears, and if anyone did, the teacher would take a pair of scissors and cut their hair during morning assembly! But I grew my hair to shoulder length, and when the teacher told me to cut it, I said, ‘Well, then I won’t dance for the school anymore!’ So they let me be. Haha!” She always told the story with such glee and a mischievous smile. When she married my Grandfather she continued to be treated like a princess, boasting a collection of designer perfumes and custom-made qi paos.

As the Alzheimer’s Disease ate away at her, her sense of self became scrambled. At times, her childhood self from the past came into the light. The girl that grew up in the spotlight no longer only existed in the stories she told me as my Grandma, but appeared right in front of my eyes. My mom became her mother figure, and she’d snuggle up to my mom just like a child looking for soothing strokes in the hair. She’d throw tantrums and expect things to be done the way she wanted. Sometimes the way she spoke indicated that she registered my dad as her older friend or brother. When she felt like it, she danced, and from the way she laughed while doing so, you could tell that she knew she was the center of attention, and she loved it.

Living with her, it was quite interesting to observe these random jumps in what she thinks of the present. For one moment she would be the child, the next moment she suddenly gets it right and knows that she’s an old lady living with her son’s family. And then when I say something to her I start of with “Grandma,” but she doesn’t realise I’m talking to her. On Mother’s Day, when my mom beckoned at Grandma to go and take a mother’s photo together, Grandma laughed and said, “Oh, am I also a mom?”

We’ve come to see that an Alzheimer’s patient doesn’t lose memory in a chronological order – it’s bits and pieces of the entire memory lane that sometimes are there and sometimes are not. This is why it’s often very difficult to take care of such patients if you are not familiar with their personality and preferences… or if you are not willing to take these into consideration. When it comes to us, we’ve cared for Grandma long enough to gauge her commonly displayed attitudes, and through living together, we’ve grasped her usual reactions as well. At dinner, she will always tell my dad to stop putting food on her plate, she will always say “I’m so full” after she finishes the last bit of rice in her bowl, she will always tell me “Enough, enough” after two ladles of soup, and after she takes the first sip, she will always say, “This soup tastes so good!”

I remember thinking before I left for college that Grandma will always remember me. Even when her mind was jumping into different periods of her life, she never forgot my nickname, or to slip me some cash if she found any in her pocket, which has always been her way of spoiling her granddaughter. My mom joked once that Grandma could forget who she is, but she will never hesitate to stuff spare cash into my hands.

I’m back after a year, but from my first day back in the house I could tell I’ve already become vague in her mind. Her face still lit up when she saw me, I think she recognised my face but no longer remembered that I’m her granddaughter. “I haven’t seen you in so long!” she said (which is also what she used to say each time I visited her in her old home once a week), and I told her, “Yeah, I was gone for a year!”

Later my parents jokingly asked her, “Who’s Toutou (my nickname)?”

She thought for a second, and said, “Toutou is a person that I really like!” She did not connect the dots that the person was me. In the days to come, only once did she suddenly raise her head as though realising something, looked at me as I was walking past the living room, and called me by my nickname. I was slightly taken aback as I’d already accepted that she’d forgotten. That moment struck me quite a bit.

I don’t know how much time I have left in Grandma’s memory. Maybe I’ve dissolved in the glass of water and parts of me have flowed out over the edge while some other parts sank to the bottom, only reaching the front of her mind again when the water is stirred. But she’ll always offer to knit me a scarf, and I’ll always reply that I’d love that, that I can’t wait to wear it in school and show it off to my friends, and that the colour of the yarn she’s using is my absolute favourite colour.

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