I spent Labor Day weekend home in Columbus and got to see two of my favorite people in the world – my 8-month-old niece Aria and my grandmother Nana Bets. I planned the trip mid-August because my step-brother Josh and his wife Prutha decided to bring Aria to be baptized at the family church in Grandview. Given the short notice and the holiday weekend, I didn’t fill my weekend up like I usually do – lunch with one friend, dinner with another, still enough time for drinks with someone else. My mom and step-dad, Josh, Prutha and Aria, my brother Mark and his girlfriend Allison, and I all managed to stay in a 3 bedroom house – with three dogs! In the past, when we have been home at the same time (i.e., Christmas), we all tend to keep a busy schedule. We might cross paths in the morning or meet up for dinner, but for the most part, everyone scatters, doing their own thing.
This time, though, we all hung around for hours watching Aria crawl around, babble, and try to knock glasses over. It is amazing how captivating it is to watch a tiny human do the same things that tiny humans have done since the first cave baby rolled over and put a rock in her mouth. Despite the fact that everything she’s doing has been done before, somehow it isn’t boring – it’s comforting, reassuring, heartening. Watching someone you love make sense of the world around her tells you that this baby will grow up to be like the other babies you have seen, and that future babies will do the same. It tells you that there are people in your family that don’t even exist yet, but whose existence will touch you so deeply that you will want to do nothing more than watch those people play with their own feet. It tells you that a happy family life is less about stability than it is about change – about watching people grow, learn, and become more independent.
Aria had a busy schedule of admirers to entertain, so I snuck off to visit Nana Bets in the afternoons. Nana Bets was one of the most unique, talented, and self-possessed women of her generation.
In the early sixties, she left an abusive marriage, making her a single mother at a time when that meant that her two young sons weren’t welcome playmates at the neighbors’. She went back to college in her late 20s to become a teacher, then got her master’s in school counseling. Even after she re-married, she continued working, and helped establish the school-counseling program in Columbus Public Schools. She and my grandfather went on road trips, ski trips, and bike trips, got their pilot’s licenses, traveled around the world, and took their grandchildren to the movies and the playground.
She was always busy – she told me many times that, like a shark, if she stopped moving, she would die.
This seems to be what happened. She was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s last year, but for years she had been relying on post-its to keep her life together. I found the worst post-it note stuck on her calendar on October 21, 2010: “Dick died.” Did she need a post-it note to remember that? Or had she just become so accustomed to writing down important information? The death of her husband of 44 years left her so overcome with grief that she couldn’t bear to see her friends or leave the house. For years, she would wake up at noon, eat cereal, watch the golf channel and Ellen DeGeneres, and get back in bed when it got dark. She gradually became less and less able to follow conversations or simple directions. She fell last spring, as evidenced by two black eyes, but had no memory of it happening. After than, she moved into a memory care unit that is supposed to be one of the best in the city, but it still feels like a hospital. She likes activity time – they have beading, root beer float hour, sing-alongs. She likes to sit with her new friend Eleanor in the sun at the end of the hallway, looping through the same conversation every 10 minutes. Sometimes I think the increased stimulation at the home is helping her – she remembers Eleanor’s name now and then, and she seems to know that she now lives on Neil Avenue – but then I am reminded that she continues to decline (Saturday night at dinner: “Pork… what animal does that come from?”).
Nana Bets’ decline has been as heartbreaking as Aria’s growth has been enchanting. I know that, at some point, their developmental paths will cross – Aria will communicate in increasingly sophisticated sentences, while Nana Bets will forget more and more words. Aria will learn to walk, run, jump, and dance; Nana Bets will eventually need help getting out of bed. We’ll get to see Aria’s personality develop – will she be funny, shy, stubborn, thoughtful? Meanwhile, the Nana Bets I once knew already emerges less and less often. Aria’s world will get bigger as Nana Bets’ shrinks. I feel so lucky to have Aria as my niece, to see all the amazing things she will do with her precious little life. At the same time, I’m so honored to have Nana Bets as my grandmother. She lived an amazing life and touched so many people. I can’t wait to see what kind of person Aria will become, but I would give anything for Nana Bets to be the person she used to be. So do I want to make time move faster or go in reverse? Ultimately, I can’t do either – all I can do is spend the time I have with the people I love.