Wrinkles in Time
"Age has no reality except in the physical world. The essence of a human being is resistant to the passage of time. Our inner lives are eternal, which is to say that our spirits remain as youthful and vigorous as when we were in full bloom." --Gabriel García Márquez
I dedicate this book to my Grandma Fern, who—after 88 years of life—still continues to bloom.
Age is the craziest thing. Really think about it. The moment we enter the world—the moment we breathe our first breath of life—this abstract concept called time becomes instantly relevant to our being. We track the duration of our human existence with a yearly numeric label—a birthday to celebrate our time alive—something to indicate what’s expected of us and our capabilities. This number, our age, tells us how much of life we’ve seen at that point in time, how much we’ve experienced. It’s conceptually tied to our level of dependence on those around us, the extent to which we count on others to learn, to grow, to progress, to evolve, to exist.
In a way, we’re born as helpless beings. We enter the world without the basic skills necessary to function independently. We have an inherent need to be taken care of, to be guided and loved, to be taught what it takes to live our lives.
We grow up, we grow together, we grow distant. We become self-sufficient; we become free. The basic skills become second nature. We go to the bathroom alone, we make our own doctor’s appointments, we make our own meals. We drive ourselves to school, we drive ourselves to work, we drive ourselves insane. We discover and shape and reshape our personal identities. We grow and endure and evolve, and eventually—at the moment we really open our eyes—we stumble upon the tremendous realization that we are here and we are human.
After a certain age, we stop functioning at the level we once could. The natural wear and tear of our aging brains and bodies can be seen in our cyclical return to our dependence on others. Just like the beginning of our lives, we’re back to being taken care of. Back to our fragile state. Some of us experience some mental decline. Many of us lose some physical vitality.
We forfeit many things as we age, but we do not forfeit ourselves. We retain the fundamental building blocks of our core identity, the quirks and the qualities that make us uniquely human and uniquely alive.
This is the sort of phenomenon I’ve witnessed through the progression of my Grandma Fern’s dementia. She’ll forget where she is, but never who she is. Frequently she’s lost, but rarely does she lose herself. She’ll leave her purse at the grocery store and her groceries at Macy’s, but she hasn’t missed a day at the beauty salon in over 40 years. Her sense of humor is unwavering. At 88 years old, she’ll look in the mirror on any given day and tell you she’s the most beautiful woman in the room. She’s confused about her new home, but she remembers vividly—and she’ll tell you twice—that Bernie down the hall has the hots for her.
“I see the way he looks at me,” she told me during my last visit at her assisted living home. “I’m a catch! But I tell ya, I don’t trust nobody! They’re all just trying to get lucky. And they cheat at bingo, anyways. Just a bunch of cheaters.”
Sixty years from now, if I’m half as popular and half as feisty as my beloved grandmother, I’ll know I’ve done something right. But for now, I’m in the midst of the raw emotional struggle that is coming to terms with life’s natural cycle—the universal journey to which all of us can relate. It is the course of human nature that at one point or another, we all must watch someone we love forego her independence for a life that teeters on its final years. It means coming to terms with getting old; it means yielding to the reality that many of life’s plans are simply out of our control. It’s the quiet pain that comes with watching our parents watch their parents fall apart. It’s the torture of seeing Grandma cry because she can’t find Grandpa. It’s the heartbreak of knowing Grandpa died two summers ago.
It’s for this reason that Grandma Fern is everyone’s grandma. And it’s for this reason that my family’s heartbreak is every family’s heartbreak.
It was early February in Madison, and the wrath of this year’s merciless winter was beginning to gnaw away at my sanity. The balcony doors in my bedroom were experiencing a similar deterioration, as they had officially forfeited their ability to remain closed for the duration of one night. I no longer needed an alarm clock, in fact, because the winter winds would slam those useless doors open—blowing papers off my desk and filling my unheated bedroom with frigid air—long before the sun or anyone else was up.
That Tuesday was one of those mornings. Startled out of my sleep by the sounds of rusty hinges and slamming doors, I awoke abruptly to find a winter storm manifesting in my bedroom. No, not again. Please, not again. I pulled my thin blankets tighter around my body and looked at the clock: 5:54 a.m. Shoot me.
The mere thought of leaving my apartment—the anticipation of battling sub-zero temperatures and piercing winds—was daunting enough to keep me buried in bed for days, but I had to be in my 9:30 class to turn in an assignment. And besides, I was awake anyways, thanks to my janky doors and the monster outside. Time to be a human. I prepared to face the day.
I always talk to my mom during the 9-minute walk from my apartment to Vilas Hall. She’s the person I can call at ungodly hours of the morning with the guarantee she’ll be awake, mostly because she’s the only person I know who sleeps as little as I do. I like to justify my four-hour sleep schedule by the fact that I’m a college student. She’s just crazy.
“HELLO?” Her voice was at an unnecessarily high volume, an indicator to me that she was driving and I was on speaker. I always hated communicating with her through the static of Bluetooth, but with someone like my mom who’s constantly on the go, I didn’t have much of a choice.
“Hi honey,” she exhaled. Similar to that innate maternal superpower of knowing when something's wrong, I like to think daughters have that same intuition for their mothers. My mom doesn’t need to say much of anything for me to get a sense of what kind of day it’s been or what kind of day its set out to be. One hundred miles stood between us, and the Edens Expressway was swallowing her words, but the defeat in her voice was loud and clear.
“How are you?” I asked, more as a formality than a question. My exposed hand was already beginning to sting from the cold.
“Very, very stressed. Just…a lot going on,” she said in a drawn-out voice. Her words dragged heavily behind her thoughts, as they usually do when she’s distracted.
“Ughhhh.” She sighed deeply—severely—as if the question itself was a tangible weight on her chest. But she knew it was coming; it was all we talked about these days. It was the question lurking behind the normalcy of the how are you’s and the what’s new’s. It was the underlying root of every recent phone conversation: How’s Grandma?
Confused. An ambiguous, innocent description for the very tangible, very palpable dementia of my aging grandmother. Coming from my mom, it was a response that indicated things hadn’t improved since last time we spoke. It was a response that came with a story, which, according to her, went something like this:
Mom visited Grandma Fern at Gidwitz, the new assisted living home we moved her into three weeks ago. Mom found her crying alone in her bedroom.
“I’ve been trying to call you forever!” Grandma Fern announced frantically under broken sobs. “You’ve been ignoring me! I was worried something happened!”
“Mom, what are you talking about? I’ve had my phone on me all morning. It hasn’t rang once.”
Grandma Fern looked down at her own shaking hands, and it was then that my mom realized what the problem was. In her tear-drenched fingers, Grandma was clutching a TV remote control, which she had mistaken for a cell phone. She was in a frantic state of confusion, and my mom’s heart was breaking.
My 9-minute walk was over. “Love you mom, keep me posted.”
“Love you honey, talk to you later.”
I didn’t hear a single word my professor said for his full hour and 15 minute lecture. My mind was drowning in the image of my frail, feeble Grandma with tears streaming down her wrinkled face, battling her frustration with the aging brain.
A couple weeks ago, my mom and I brought our dog, Cosby, to surprise my Grandma at Gidwitz. That dog brings almost as much joy to her life as a new hair do or a fresh manicure.
“Oooh, my favorite grandchild!” she rejoiced, undoubtedly referring to Cosby. I laughed—partially because she meant it—but mostly because of that goofy smile on her face. I began to survey the room, noting some of the signs that she was finally starting to make this place her home. One such sign—a hand-written "speed dial" list consisting solely of our five family members—sat on a wooden table next to her phone. Three or four inches over, resting on the base of her reading lamp was the brown leather address book she’s had for years. I was in the middle of wrapping my head around the fact that address books still exist when my mom picked it up and starting flipping through the pages.
“Mom, what’s with all the crossed off names?” she asked my grandma, who was fully engrossed in Cosby’s every move.
She glanced up at the address book. “They’re all dead!” she announced matter-of-factly, as if the answer was obvious. “What use do I have for their addresses anymore? I cross off all the dead ones.”
I briefly cringed at the somber truth in her response, and then shifted my gaze to what had first caught my eye when I walked in.
Behind the couch on the far side of the room, a wilting red flower sat desolately on a windowsill. I sensed it had been there for a while; the pedals were fully bloomed, but the plant itself was losing its structure. At the bottom, browning leaves drooped below their intended position. Some of the corners curled inward while others had already shriveled up completely. At the center of the plant, the velvety flower that once stood boldly upright was clearly succumbing to its final days.
But I couldn’t look away. I couldn’t discount the beauty of a decaying flower whose colors—against all odds—still retained their original vibrancy and radiance. The plant had lost its luster—that I was sure of—but beneath the surface of its crumbling decline, it was still a flower. And a beautiful one at that.
"How about this? Do you need this?"
I looked over at my mom and my grandma, who were busy sorting through plastic boxes of old beauty products on the couch. Ancient, unlabeled deoderants; assortments of dusty lipsticks from 40 years ago; blue and purple eye shadows cracked into a million pieces. My grandma has a tendency to hoard all of her belongings--some of which are as old as she is--for reasons I'll never understand but always appreciate.
"Oooh, how about this one," My grandma fiddled with one of the many lipstick tubes from the box. "That's a pretty color, isn't it? I better hold on to it!"
My mom smiled and looked at me. "It's a nice one, mom," she told her.
"Put some on me! I oughta look nice for dinner. You know, everyone here dresses to the nines for dinner. Nice slacks and fancy jewerly and eveything. Isn't that something? Here, put some lipstick on me." My grandma puckered up and closed her eyes while my mom gently applied a plum red to her lips.
"There, how does that look?" My mom lifted a hand mirror to my grandma's face.
"Wooow, better hold on to this one!" I watched my grandma examine herself in the mirror, turning her head at different angles. "Bernie's gonna lose it!"
And at that moment--for the first time in too long--I truly understood Grandma Fern. I realized age hadn't changed her, not even a little. I saw her for what she was in that very moment, for what she always was: a magnificent flower whose radiant colors prevailed in the the battle against time.