My grandmother is sick. A few weeks ago, she had a stroke which disabled the right side of her body. According to the nurses at the retirement home where she now lives, Mamy doesn’t speak anymore and she has refused to eat since the stroke.
For years, my Mamy has talked about wanting to die. It started when my grandfather passed away in 2003, but she’s only become more adamant in the last two years since she had to move into a home.
She suffers from Alzheimer’s and often believes she is a child again, wondering aloud why her mother hasn’t been by to pick her up from school yet. In her more lucid moments, she still doesn’t recognize me or my mother, but she does remember that she wants to die.
My grandmother lives in France and I live in the on the west coast of the United States. This distance has always been difficult. Growing up, I remember that any time she or my grandfather had health problems or even more minor issues it broke my heart that I couldn’t be there to help out. At the same time, the separation has always made the time we do spend together special.
Her everyday world has always been my escape. There’s even a different language for this dreamland of yummy pastries and endless cheeses. I can be someone different there, and, in a very real sense, I am.
I’m fluent-ish in French. By that I mean that, while I speak with little or no accent, I can never find my words. As a result, I can’t be half as chatty in French as I am in English, so I come across differently: I am a new person in French.
My grandmother only knows that person. The one who’s a bit of a fish out of water, never knowing how many bises to give this cousin or that acquaintance, always wanting to hug the people she likes best. The one who’s polite to a fault since she refuses to use slang because it doesn’t seem right in her mouth. The one who’s so monstrously tall it’s embarrassing.
It’s hard to be in my real world right now without thinking a lot about my Mamy.
But that’s how it goes when you make your life far from your family, whether it’s in another country entirely or just across the country. There’s a magic in the distance and in the special quality of the time that I have with my grandmother, but there’s also the painful separation implicit in that distance.
I can’t go home and hold my grandmother’s hand, so instead I painted her.
My grandmother has never spoken English, but, at one point, she did know one word: butterfly. She had seen it in a book that I had left behind after a visit when I was very small. The next time we came, she greeted us with the word: bou-ter-flaille. I loved the way she said it, and I loved that papillon was the word she chose to learn in English.