It was Friday. The worst day. Visiting day in the nursing home. I could see my small family clustered around my Grandmother. I waited for her to recognize I wasn’t among my family, but she didn’t, she never did any more. My family talked animatedly with smiles plastered onto their faces, trying to hide the devastation they felt. I shifted in the cramped hiding area and let mind drift to when we first discovered it.
“Amy!” My Grandma opened her arms wide. I was 4 and still small enough to be lifted into the air. “How’s my favorite girl?” she asked, resting me back on the ground. “I’m magnificent!” I beamed. “Well that’s wonderful!” She tapped my nose and I giggled. Her eyes sparkled, like they always did when she held a secret. “Guess what I found?” She whispered. “What!? Tell me!” I urged. Grandma laughed, “C’mon I’ll show you,” she led me to the wall opposite her room. The image was still sharp in my mind, it was a simple white washed wall, with 3 by 3 foot panels adorning the bottom. Grandma squatted, so her face was level to the wood paneling. “Your grandpa and I were wheeling through here yesterday, and Tom’s wheelchair got stuck. So I got up to unstick the wheel and guess what?” She paused dramatically. “What!?” I grabbed her delicate hands in eager anticipation. “The wall opened!” She reached out to a wood panel and I watched in awe as it swung it open. “It’s huge!” I crawled into the surprisingly large hing space “Look.There’s even a window.” She pointed to a small rectangle of glass that was embedded in the wood. I laughed and closed the door in Grandma’s face, eager to have the hiding place all to myself. I could see Grandma laughing through the window. She caught me looking at her and wiggled her fingers at me. I wiggled mine back at her, basking in hw wonder of my very own hiding place.
As I grew older the hiding place got smaller. I had to remove the decorations and books I had put in over the years until it was once again, only a space in the wall.
When I was eight, Grandpa Tom died. I don’t remember the funeral, just the days after it. Every day after the funeral, my Mom and I would drive out to the nursing home. I would crawl into Grandma’s lap and stroke her hand as her and my mom talked. After a while, Mom would tell me to go play. She had meant for me to go to the nursing home's daycare, but I always crawled into my hiding spot and watched as my Grandma and Mom cried together. It was the first time I ever saw grown- ups cry and a surreal sense of importance was bestowed upon me. After a while, everyday visits turned into once a week, then once a month. When I got old enough I would bike there on Fridays. Too big to sit in my special hiding place, I had resigned to sitting in a bean bag chair next to her rocking chair. Talking to her, reading her books, and learning about everything she knew. She told me about Grandpa Tom and my Mom growing up. I talked to her about my first crush, and my troubles at school. I sat in the bean bag chair every Friday, laughing, crying, knitting, sewing, playing cards. I never told anyone, but she was my best friend. I would always be there for her, and she would always be there for me, or at least, I thought she would.
On December 8, precisely two weeks after my 13th birthday, my Grandma was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease. “Incurable” they told us. They told us it would progress slowly, attacking her short term memory, and eventually, the long term. She will occasionally forget who you are, they warned. I didn’t believe them. Not my Grandma, not my best friend. Our family visits to the nursing home increased to weekly, and my visits increased to daily. At first nothing changed. We talked, she told me stories and taught me games, and I told her about my life. Too soon, though, I began noticing little changes. She retold stories and would ask me the same questions she had already asked. One week, when I went to the nursing home, I entered the room to see my Grandma, once so full of life, sitting heavily on the rocking chair, and her dazzling eyes darkened with sadness. She shook her head “I can’t remember.” she whispered. I did not know what she did not remember. I did not want to burden her with my questions. I simply took a book off the shelf and read to her. That was the first bad day. In the beginning, it was mostly good days. We would talk and laugh together, but soon, I found myself plucking more and more books from the shelf and reading them while Grandma stared out the window, as if searching for her lost memories.
Two years after Grandma was diagnosed with Alzheimer's, she forgot who my little brother was. It was a bad day, I could tell. My fingers itched to pluck a book from the wall, sit down, and read, but my parents were there, and they wanted to talk. She glanced up. “Hi.” She smiled a smile that didn't quite reach her eyes. “I see you brought a guest with you.” She leaned down to George and I felt my stomach drop. “Mom?” My Mom asked, her voice rising slightly. “You know George, your grandson.” Confusion entered her eyes and my heart broke.“George…” she muttered. “Your grandson.” My mother half-yelled, panic in her voice. “George, you know George!” she leaned into Grandma, clutching her shoulder, a note of hysteria in her voice. “I’m sorry I don’t-” Grandma looked on the verge of tears. “Mom” I said, placing my hands on her shoulders, pulling her back. “It’s ok. Leave Grandma alone.” She stared, horror struck, as Dad pulled her away to the hallway. “The doctors said-but I never thought-” she mumbled on the way out. Grandma looked at me with pleading eyes “I think… I think I remember him.” She was lying, we both knew it. I said nothing, just picked Tom Sawyer from the shelf and started to read. Eventually, Grandma forgot Dad too, and though she never forgot Mom, she often mistook her for someone else, like a sister instead of a daughter. She never forgot me though. Every day I would come in and she would smile in welcome. She still told me stories, and I listened. She always remembered me. Or at least… she used to
It was a month before my 17th birthday when I entered the room, ecstatic. I had just received my acceptance letter to Brown University. I entered the room and could immediately tell it was a bad day. She stared out the window, not even acknowledging my presence. I went to the shelf and plucked up Little Women. Telling myself I would tell her the good news tomorrow. She turned as I sat down. “I’m sorry,” she said “Do I know you?”
That was the day I stopped my solo visits to the nursing home. I only went on Fridays. But I never went into the room. I had rediscovered my special place, once so roomy, was now cramped. I would watch as my family tried desperately to make an imprint on her memory. And I watched every week as they failed. Fear kept me behind the wall. Fear that my best friend would not remember me again. I was something I never wished to be, a coward. But still, I did not come out. I watched as my small family talked to Grandma. It was a good day, Grandma smiled and talked back to them. Eventually, they left. They would be waiting for me, I knew, but I stayed, watching my Grandma rock in her chair, knitting and humming to herself. She joked with the nurses, as she ate her lunch. After they were gone, she stared out the window, as if searching. I pretended, as I did every time she did this, that she was searching for me. A child’s fantasy, yet… she turned as if shocked, and stood to shut the door to the room., I watched as she went, getting one last look at her before I had to go. She paused, her hands on the door's edge, and, as if in a trance, she turned, looking at my special hiding place and waved. I looked into her sparkling eyes, and, for a moment, fear was lifted, just enough for me to crawl forward and open the door.
But as soon as I opened my door, she closed hers.