We were sitting on the couch late one night when the phone rang—an old rotary one with a silver dial that I had no idea how to use, despite my dad showing me numerous times. Nan answered and spoke briefly with my dad.
My parents left the apartment in the afternoon, but I chose to stay with my great-grandmother. We were working on a puzzle that night, interrupted only by strategic sips of tea when contemplating our next move.
I was only 12 years old, but everything about this moment is ingrained in my mind. The table lamps emitting a warm sleep-inducing glow across the living room; the floral-patterned couch that would catch on your hair if you rubbed against it with bare skin. No matter how many years pass, despite the many ways I have changed in the last 11 years, a part of me still remains on that couch beside my Nan.
She was born on a rural farm in Quyon, Quebec. She had seven siblings, and spent a majority of her years caring for them, especially for her sister Fern, who struggled with schizophrenia all her life. I was too young to understand, but my great-grandmother was the queen of my family.
The way she reacted to the poor choices and unfortunate circumstances of others, her treatment of those she loved and those she disliked: she was a polarizing woman, and as a child, I aspired to be like her. She loved in a way that I never understood—in a way that I can’t fully comprehend to this day. She was a fierce and unconditionally selfless woman.
When we moved to Sudbury, my sister and I would anxiously wait at the end of our driveway for Purolator to bring our parcel from Nan. She’d send toys and chocolate for us, along with spending money, and clothes for school.
Nan had a fall in her apartment when I was fourteen; an accidental trip on the rug near her front door. I remember my disbelief at the notion of her succumbing to anything. My great-grandmother didn’t run marathons, but she was known for walking a kilometre to Sears and back a few times a week in her early 80s.
Hip surgery and some restful weeks led to a full recovery, but hearing that your hero, in fact, bleeds, is harrowing.
We knew something was wrong when she began to forget more and more. Birthdays, dates, the names of her siblings: She would climb on top of the kitchen counter with no recollection as to why.
Admittance to a retirement home enraged my great-grandmother. Nan pleaded to her daughter that she was fine, that she didn’t want to live in a home. Through tears, my grandmother held firm. She couldn’t supply the care that Nan would inevitably need as the years progressed; my grandma knew that. We all knew that. It didn’t make the choice any easier.
Those were dark years for my grandmother, as Nan was everything close and dear to her. They lived in the same apartment building for many years, some even in the same unit. Every holiday would be spent with one another, swapping stories, and enjoying each other’s company.
Nan felt betrayed during her last few years of coherence and grandma lost her best friend. My childhood was heavily influenced by mental illness, but Nan was my first experience with Alzheimer’s.
The first time we visited her in the new home was terrifying. I remember I didn’t want to go at first. I was 15 years old, and worried that memories of the woman I cherished would be tarnished. The retirement home was cold and inhumane, and the more familiar I became with the place, the greater I despised it.
It was like the saddest zoo I had ever been to. Each door was left slightly open, revealing screams, moans, and pleas. To the right of every door stood a plaque with each captive’s somber face, and the name they used to answer to.
Seeing Nan almost felt normal. The room was decorated with bits of her apartment furniture, and paintings that used to hang in her bedroom hung crooked on the walls. She looked the same as I saw her last, except her clothes. Apparently the staff had trouble keeping each resident’s clothes together during laundry.
While we talked, my great-grandmother responded with unfocused nods, maintaining a smile as she looked at my sister and me. She remembered our names after taking some time to gather her thoughts. She asked how school was and we responded carefully. Time crept past as we grasped at conversation, talking about her old furniture.
This woman in the rocking chair felt like an imposter, and I was angry at the retirement home; at my great-grandmother for acting this way; at my parents for bringing me here; tarnishing those sacred moments of playing euchre and doing puzzles.
At a very young age, I found a connection between death and mental illness. Both ignore the whims of technology, the tendencies of political regimes, and the emotions of men and women.
People say you never forget the ones you love, but you do. First, it’s the time spent together—moments you believed would never escape your mind. Then faces begin to blur, masked by an image of what you believe the person represents.
Several years after my first visit, I helped my grandmother bring Nan to the hospital for a check-up. The disease rapidly progressed since I last visited. She was confined to a wheelchair and didn’t recognize either of us. Instead of speaking, she could only babble like a child, and as we traveled in the medical van, she pointed at trees and people that we passed.
Seeing Nan in this state was the hardest thing I’ve endured. Perhaps it’s because I was still hanging on to who she was, or the angry child in me saw her as dead when she stopped being the great-grandmother I remembered.
Outside the hospital in the chilly October midday, Nan shivered and moaned. In an instant, my sweater was off and over her head. She was my role model as a child; the least I could do was suffer a few minutes in the cold for her.
I began to visit the retirement home more often despite my hatred for the place. We seldom saw Nan in her room during the last few months, and instead found her roaming the halls with her walker. This turned out to be a frequent hobby shared among many residents, which I found terrifying.
I remember squatting down in front of her wheelchair, and attempting to call through those empty eyes into the last remnants of her mind, trying to spark something: anything. But as anyone who has experienced mental illness knows all too well, no amount of persistence or willpower can cure someone’s sickness.
There was a sense of closure during the last few visits. Nan’s babbling ceased, replaced with a silence that made her seem almost at peace. Her calming voice was the last piece I held on to, desperately trying to shield it from deteriorating. And once it, too, sunk below the surface, I realized that spending time with her as she was—lost and incoherent, but breathing and alive—was nothing short of a blessing.
When she died, we travelled to Quyon: her final resting place. We gathered on a grassy hill, surrounded by a circle of tall trees and unfamiliar faces. There were friends and family present that I had never met before, people old and young that she affected with her loving ways.
It’s been three years since she left, and although some of her beauty eroded over the years, she still lives on through the actions of her life. Some say that time heals all wounds, but I don’t think that’s the case. I feel Nan’s death not as a faint memory, but as a raw reminder of how she taught us in life and death.
Cody Lirette is a man who likes a good cup of coffee. A barista by day and writer by night, Cody is currently working on a personal blog about health, nutrition, and literature. He is enjoying his second year in Algonquin College's Professional Writing program.