Parkinson’s: Stealing from Grandma

My great-grandmother, grandmother, and me
My great-grandmother, grandmother, and me

I began stealing from my grandma three years ago.  When I realized that one day I would not be able to wake up and find her sitting in the kitchen, watching a 13-inch black-and-white television, I needed something concrete.  I needed something tangible to slow the slide of time that had pushed, like a loose fader, loudly past me.

On a visit to see her in 2010, I idly rifled through a drawer in the nightstand next to my bed. A photo, forgotten, peeked from underneath a hodgepodge of pincushions and papers.  It was too dope, from what had to be the late 1950s.  A toddler in Little Lord Fauntleroy shorts, my father stood in the foreground, flanked by his mother, his grandmother, and other dapper-don Negroes.  One short fellow was dressed in black pants firmly belted to mid-waist, constrained with a necktie, gangster leaning. Were they coming from church? Only an expanse of sky and grass bracketed the figures, who stood next to a classic car.  No one smiled.

I grinned.  There was an original and a copy.  Pausing, I snatched up the copy and slid it into a notebook in my purse.  Back in Georgia, I dusted off an unused shadow box frame, folded some single-side tape to double stick, and put it on display. There, there was proof that my grandmother, lithe and coiffed, was more than the shell that Parkinson’s Disease rattled continually.

Parkinson’s is a debilitating snowball of symptoms, a prolonged dance with alternately stiff and tremulous limbs. I wonder now how long I didn’t notice, how long I mistook the slow degradation of nerve cells as an uncharacteristic clumsiness. Grandma Lennye’s fingers, a golden honey-tone, always had grace to them.  My grandmother is now a body of earthquakes, a rumbling of muscle into ligament and unsettled cells. Her arm shakes like a tympanic break beat mid-symphony, a dub step piece sampling groove and funk battling dyskinesia at dinner.

The disease has stolen her voice. Conversation is difficult as her tongue jerks, swallowing sound: her mouth is a prison of teeth where words crumble into grunts. I sort through the rubble of her speech to make treasures of broken language, tuck them into my eardrum and replay. Try as I might, I cannot understand her.

My family in Alabama, probably late 40s or early 50s.
My family in Alabama, probably late 50s. My father, the toddler, looks like he might bolt.

The picture I swiped sits on my work desk to remind me that my history is ever before me. I wish time had shaken me instead and pushed me to ask her about King and Detroit when it was beautiful and black-and-white pictures that are only in color as she remembers them. Her legacy I never thought of in youth. Of all the things Parkinson’s has pilfered from her, I miss her conversation most. The next time I visit, I take her registration slip from Alabama State College for Negroes and hope it tells the story she can’t anymore.

The phone unsettles me each time it rings with my father’s name on the screen. I expect bad news. The tremors have shaken the foundation of my grandmother’s soul looser from the earthen vessel it rests in. Hospice care means she will be comfortable, but my emotions toss to and fro thinking that I am waiting for her to slip away. Days etch into months, borrowed squares on the calendar. I pray for healing but know she will never be still again, in this life.

So, there it is. I have stolen her pictures and papers as thin comfort, because I cannot hold my grandmother tight enough to stop her from shaking, to steady my world from the quake her absence will bring me.

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4 thoughts on “Parkinson’s: Stealing from Grandma

  1. This is so heartbreakingly beautiful Dara. Your grandmother sounds like a beautiful woman, my own grandmother languished for five years after heart surgery so I know the feeling of watching someone you love slowly disintegrate before your eyes. Thank you for sharing this. It resonates…

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