One of my grandmother’s favorite stories is this:
She and my mother were visiting me at my first post-college apartment. Though the apartment itself was a complete dive in that charming, no-heat-and-mice way only 22-year-olds can consider charming, it was located in a hip, swanky neighborhood next door to an even swankier cheese shop. Armed with brie, gouda, and mozzarella, the three of us stood at the cash register, patiently waiting for our change. The man behind that counter happened to be an amateur photographer, and he asked to take our picture.
“Three sets of blue eyes, three faces so similar all lined up. Three generations. You can’t deny genetics,” he said as he snapped away. My grandmother blushed and smiled proudly.
She brought that story up several times over the past five years, always marveling at how strangers knew we were linked to each other by our blue eyes. I always wished I’d stopped back at the cheese shop and asked for a copy.
One of my favorite stories of my grandmother is this: She was babysitting the three of us while my parents were away. It was dusk on a cold February night and my brothers were playing street hockey. She and I were in the living room, each holding a thick hardcover book on our laps, completely engrossed. For different reasons, we’d both turned to books at early ages and had never let them go.I looked up and saw we were sitting with our legs crossed the same way on each end of the ottoman, our toes tapping along to the music from the Bose stereo in perfect synchrony. We spent an hour like that, never speaking.
Of the three of us, my grandmother’s eyes are the bluest. A piercing blue, not in an icy or severe way but in an intensely expressive one. My mother buys her Talbots sweaters in all shades of blue—turquoise, periwinkle, navy, royal—to bring out the color in her eyes. Now, in her blue and green johnny and flanked by a blue curtain cordoning off her hospital bed, her blue eyes are startling, especially against her pale face.
My grandmother has always been an intensely private person, and her story will remain private here. I will say, though, that from her earliest years she experienced profound losses, the kind of life-defining losses that either shut you down altogether or recast the boundaries of your survival. She didn’t shut down.
She is reserved but not shy, and her face reveals the depth of expressions she otherwise keeps to herself. A life of the eyebrow, a narrowing of the eyelid, a widening between the lashes, a crinkling at the corners—in a glance, dismay, skepticism, joy, whatever she is feeling, is evident. We often tease her about her “drop dead” look, a glance so fierce and penetrating that as children, we only needed to see it for a second to stop whatever we were doing that she found unacceptable. She can still stop my mother in her tracks with it.
Some say I have inherited that look. My husband will have to confirm this.
After the first stroke, she seemed smaller and frailer. Her eyes seemed bluer. She could speak in coherent sentences, but you could see the strain to locate the right words in her face. She scrunched it up, as if so to say to us, “Do you know how annoying this is?” But she talked, nodding emphatically in the right places and following up with questions of her own. We brought her books and magazines, but for the first time in her reading life, they were left untouched.
The human brain is an uncanny captor. After the second stoke this week, she lost the use of her right side. She cannot speak, but expends huge amounts of effort trying to make herself understood. She shook her left fist in frustration today. “I’m not going anywhere. It’s okay. You can take your time and try again,” I told her. And softer, so my mother did not hear, “Don’t be scared.”
She nodded slightly.
“Every time I see you, Dolls, your eyes are bluer than ever.” I started saying this, using her nickname, in the hospital this summer and then it became our little thing—every visit to the rehab and the nursing home began with it. I tell her this again today, and she blinks at me. She knows.
She no longer has the ability to swallow and cannot take anything, even juice, by mouth, because she aspirates it. If you cannot swallow and you have put in writing you do not want a G-tube, suddenly the timeframe and the options available in it are much smaller.
So it is a period of difficult decision-making, and we talk about what is going on in front of her. He brain will not allow her to swallow or speak, but it allows her to know what is going on. I’m not sure if that is better or worse, because the things we say are frank.
I kissed her head and told her I will be back tomorrow. “I love you,” I said. She met my eyes and held my gaze. “I know,” she told me without saying a word.