How to lose someone twice

To be precise, I lost him twelve days ago. Twelve days and one hour. But this was my second time sensing his departure. And recently, it has been a lot of trying to contrast the two, to determine which time was a bit harder to bear. In the end, it doesn’t quite matter I guess. Because in the end, I still lost him. Twice.

Hidden in the back of my thoughts, there is a scattered memory when I went cotton-picking. I remember my cousins and I fighting over the baskets. I remember pinching the fluffy cotton out from its stalk, giggling and flinging my basket around as I danced around the cotton trees while my grandfather shouted after me to be careful. I remember running to the house and bringing back a pot of freshly brewed tea for him. Then I would plop down next to him, on the top of a dirt mound, with my legs crisscrossed and the teapot by my side. And I would watch his face as he drank the tea, resting my own face against my palms and letting the glee soak in.

Ironically, it was on this same piece of land when I lost him for the first time.

Earlier that year, my grandfather began showing signs of Alzheimer’s. For a while, I don’t think it bothered me that he was no longer able to remember. Mostly because when he saw me during my visit, he grinned while showing his missing tooth and articulated my name in the same way he had when I was a child, then held out his wrinkled hand to take mine. I would eagerly take this hand I have clutched for years, ecstatic he still knew me, though completely ignoring the blank stare of his eyes and the emptiness in his smile.

But he didn’t forget his land. Every morning, at precisely five, he grabbed his cane and went out the door, with my grandmother yelling after him to come back. She eventually gave up and her scream began calling for me to sprint after him as I fumbled for a sweater on those slightly chilly mornings. And so, I became my grandfather’s guardian that summer. Before the roosters awoke, we would pace that field in silence, side by side.

On one of those days, I remember my foot somehow getting caught in the vines. When I fell, my hands automatically pushed against the fleshy soil to help myself up. But out of curiosity, I stopped and peered towards his backside as he maintained his flounder ahead of me, and I wondered when he would realize my absence and turn back as he would have in the past. That curiosity quickly faltered into a hesitant fear, and then into an inkling that I might rot in that spot if I kept hoping. As I sat there with my foot still tangled with the earthly greens, still willing for some sort of response from this figure in front of me – even if to scold my carelessness – and in the midst of that dirt pile I fell onto, I began to cry. Not at all because my foot was hurting, but because I realized I no longer recognized this shadow that overtook my grandfather’s body. In this single lifetime we have, he was gone. And what was sadder was despite how intimate that moment was for me, it was nothing to him.

Later, when we sat down by the doorway, I examined him as he ate seeds out of a sunflower. His gaze fell upon a stack of barley in front of him. It felt like an eternity – me sitting there with my cheeks against my palms, just watching this unexplainable creature in front of me. The remainder of that day has become a haze now and it is arduous to illustrate my response to the earlier episode. But I remember wishing I had pursued him like how I had pursued so many others. I remember apologizing as he continued picking at the sunflower seeds, unfazed by my presence. I remember attempting to redeem myself as tears fell down my face - tears that were invisible to him. But everything felt too late that day. I already lived the burden of how much I had failed as a daughter and as a granddaughter.

For the next two years, I have learned from Lisa Genova how to say “Yes, and…”. I have sat alone in the back of the movies, watching Still Alice and watching my grandfather at the same time. I have wondered if he ever feels scared – intimidated by what has become increasingly unfamiliar. I have speculated what it is like to have Alzheimer’s, to slowly lose yourself.

The night before I last saw him this summer, two years since that day in the fields, I tucked my grandfather into bed. As I was just about to stand up and leave, my aunt strolled in and mused at how sound asleep he was. “He’s dreaming,” she told me. I leaned in and saw the side of his face twitching faintly as he pulled the blanket closer to his body. My aunt continued chuckling as she walked out the room. But I lingered for a while, watching and wondering if he was, in fact, dreaming. The next day, after I slipped on the backpack that travelled across the country with me, I tugged on the side of his sleeves to say bye. Right before I stepped out of the room, he moved ever so slightly, still not gazing at me, and called out for me to not wander and be careful of getting lost. I said okay grandpa and smiled. And that was the last time. 

But this is how you lose someone twice. The first time, consciously. The second time, tangibly.