On January 8, I called my grandmother to wish her a happy birthday, but she didn’t remember who I was. Trapped at the intersection of dementia, Alzheimer's, and years of being improperly prescribed medication to the point of needlessly taking antipsychotics, her not recognizing my voice was a long time coming.
Still, everything happened too quickly. I refused to believe she was slowly deteriorating right under my nose. In a matter of months, she went from just having terrible hearing and a surly attitude to calling me every five minutes because she forgot we just spoke. And because she’s scared.
My grandmother is ending her life as a once-powerful woman, now being criminally robbed of her memories and good sense, but music and writing and love are all immortal. Time is fleeting, tomorrow is not promised, and I’m finding that yesterday may not even be remembered. So while she can still put two sentences together in her mind, here is an ode to the woman that raised my mother and damn near raised me.
“My grandma's passing / But I'm too busy tryna get this fuckin' album cracking to see her / So I apologize in advance if anything should happen” —Earl Sweatshirt, “Burgundy”
When it first became clear that my grandma was entering her final chapter, I saw her less and less. I had to focus on school, on working, on preserving my image of her as the woman who stomped down the block to demand one of the local boys put air in my basketball. I told myself she was going to forget all the times I didn’t see her, but I would never forget her slumped over on the couch, spitting into a plastic bag, unable to bring a spoon to her lips.
I was as angry as I was selfish. I couldn’t even bring myself to hear her voice, a shrill and scraggly mess. Worse off, I couldn’t bring myself to see the bigger picture. “And my priorities fucked up, I know it,” Earl said on “Burgundy.” Our actions are inexcusable, but I imagine we were both paralyzed with fear—I know I am. No matter the circumstances, my grandma was always in the right mind to love me. I owe the same to her.
“She can say in her voice, in her way that she love me / With her eyes, with her smile, with her belt, with her hands, with her money / I am the thesis of her prayers” —Chance The Rapper, “Sunday Candy”
As a first-generation American, my family history is predicated on sacrifices. Sacrifice and love, as my grandma showed me, are synonyms. At the spry age of 50, she left one of the few paying jobs in Soviet Russia to escape anti-Semitism. By way of an unexplained system facilitated by Israel, she was forced to give up her property, her citizenship, and almost all of her savings for a three-month visa in Austria and the chance to give my mother a better life. After a holding period, they were finally given refugee status in Italy for half a year, and after months of waiting, made it to America—America being South Brooklyn, New York.
Yet when I saw her two weeks ago, she was nothing more than loose flesh wrapped around a deformed skeleton. Still, somewhere between the pain and the thick fog holding her mind hostage, she managed to put an arm around me and ask if I’m still writing. Not two minutes later, she forgot our conversation and asked me what I’ve been doing. I tell her I’m writing, she gasps. Me? Writing? Anything can happen in America.
My grandma never explained her sacrifices to me, and for most of my childhood, nothing that she did made a lick of sense. She’d chase me down with a piece of fish skewered on the end of a sharp knife, begging me to eat. At nine, I thought she was crazy. I wish I understood sooner that she lived through war and famine, that when she said her heart was seizing up because I wasn’t eating, she meant it. I now know that this was her loving me more than I could ever fathom.
“Laila is my grandmother. It’s my maternal grandmother. Just growing up she always said, give me my flowers while I’m here. You grow up and you realize what it really means, showing them your love and your appreciation through a phone call or a text. It’s not always physical flowers. It can be but I just wanted to tie it to the music and this is my way of giving back.” —Rapsody, explaining the concept of 'Laila’s Wisdom.'
Too often, a loss makes me selfish and self-pitying, but my grandmother deserves better. Her harsh exterior aside, she worked until her bones were brittle and her hands crooked, and all the while she redefined what love could mean. I can count on my one hand the number of times she sat me down to tell me she loved me, but we’d need all of New York to come together to count the number of times she proved love was a verb.
My grandma’s wisdom was quiet. She taught me and my mother that there was no age limit on dreams, that there was nothing stopping either one of us from being as strong as her. By example, she taught me about grit and self-worth, and that anyone trying to cut me down does so out of fear. I can only hope that for years to come, her wisdom will continue revealing itself to me when I’m ready, and when I’m least expecting.
The damning mystique of the matriarch is that I always imagined that she would live forever; she’s already lived through the unimaginable. I don’t know what will come tomorrow or the next day, but I do know that at the very least, my grandmother will live forever on the page.
This is the formal start of her final bouquet.