Six years before her death, my grandmother had a minor stroke. She was a fighter, my grandmother. She didn’t allow it to faze her in the slightest.
But after that, her memory began to slip. The timeline got jumbled. She couldn’t always recall who she had had lunch with that day, or who she was speaking to on the phone, but she remembered exactly the sight and smell of each tree in her backyard in the 1920s. The older she got, the clearer these childhood memories became. Time can be funny that way.
She was born and raised in India, although British by blood and citizenship. My mother, British by blood and citizenship, spent the majority of her life in America. I am proud to come from a line of traveling women. I am proud to be one of them. Oh, what adventures we’ve had.
At 84, my grandmother started to forget them, and then rapidly began to share the ones she hadn’t. She recognized what was coming, something perhaps more fearful than death, the understanding that time would much too quickly drain from her all that she had spent her life storing up.
Memories are precious things, even the bad ones, the painful ones. They are the stories that remind us of who we are. They are the foundations upon which we build. They are all that we can really be certain of in the end. They are the sum of a life.
I understood why my grandmother, learning that she could not cling to them forever, wanted to set them free. I understood her urge to tell them. I understood her desire to write poems. I understood that all of it was a means of survival, a small hope for immortality. She was a fighter, my grandmother.
And so I listened patiently to what she had to say, whether it made sense to me at the time or not, whether it made any sense at all. It all seemed important – the route she took to school each day, the feel of her first bathtub, the fragility of her mother’s china bookends, the scent of Indian trees. All of this meant something. All of this, somehow, equaled a life. All of this was my grandmother.
When she was 90 and at the very edge of death, and unable to recognize me without some considerable concentration, I remember thinking, maybe this is how it’s supposed to be. Maybe our memories really do come full circle that way. Maybe we reach a certain point in life when we begin to clean out the attic of our minds, taking down each box and going through the things we’ve stored there, piece by piece.
Maybe in our final moments, we are not seeing our lives flash before our eyes, but only this one final piece, this first piece we decided to store oh so many years ago, this first image of memory that has also become our last. Maybe we build it all up only to one day take it down, clear it out, share it with others so that it may be stored in their attics, in their minds, long after we have gone from this earth.
My grandmother felt her memories slipping, and so instead of losing them, she gave them to me. And I packed them up and stored them away. I carry them with me. I share pieces of them with you. In this way, nothing is lost. No one is lost. Our stories save us. We endure.
When death finally arrived, my grandmother stopped fighting. She simply sighed into its embrace, like an infant in its mother’s arms – without memories, without struggle, just calm, and clear, and ready for adventure.