My mother told me, when I was rather young, that no one’s soul ever dies. I imagine that each memory is a small flame, burning amidst so many others. They eventually create a swirling, shimmering glow, illuminated by love, flying up, up, up, until they light the sky with a brilliant glow.
As we walked through the halls of the clinic, I spotted a ninety-year-old woman on her bed, eyes wide, mouth open as if trying to scream. No sound came out. Her breath came in heavy gasps. A shriek, as a patient slumped over in his wheelchair. His orange juice splattered across his white t-shirt. A moan, as patients cast slow, lingering glances at random objects, their tennis-balled walkers gliding slowly across the cold, tile ground. A yell. A patient’s flare of anger at an invisible phantom, lurking behind the humming refrigerator. A groan. Patients forget, their old minds giving way beneath the weight of their disease. A cry. Another memory casually fizzled into the air. Wearing a red uniform, a nurse guided us into another depressing room, then another, and it seemed like the corridors and rooms were endless. Dark beige walls and dim lamps created a somber, gloomy effect, which is probably an understatement. Finally, we reached the hallway which led to where my grandmother was. Maliha, my grandmother.
Silently, we walked to the television room, where there was a large group of elderly, white haired men and women, each focusing on the TV, although it was clear to me that they had no idea where they were or what was playing on that strange, small sound omitting box. Scanning the room, I finally located my grandmother in the crowd, sitting and chatting with another patient in her native language, Farsi. Because she was the only one in the entire room who was saying anything, we walked over towards her. Once she looked up at us, my mother and father bent down and kissed her on the cheek, and, as usual, there was not a significant sign of recognition radiating from her. However, she did say hello and converse with us; some friendly habits die hard. My sister gave me the usual quizzical looks whenever my grandmother would address her, due to my grandmother’s no longer sensical or straightforward phrases. Then, she looked me in the eyes, an unfamiliar look on her face. Studying her very closely, I noticed a food stain her collar. Her hair was turning gray. Her eyes, though, were the same as ever. She said to me, “What is your name, honey?” Each word came out with a struggle; she was slowly losing her English. I remember the precise way she said those four words: Long, drawn out syllables and consonants fighting, clawing their way out of her quivering lips. This question was common. I usually simply replied and told her my name over and over. However, it was as if suddenly, I could not speak; my whole body went rigid. Tears welled up in my eyes, and my throat constricted. Slowly, my palms went damp, and, in a long, reluctant, moment, I quietly mumbled my name to her. Distractedly, she nodded and smiled, clearly having no clue as to who I was. She continued to speak nonsensically, but I could not take it anymore. Feeling suffocated, I excused myself, and I burst out of the room and went to the bathroom.
Perhaps I should not admit it. Maybe I should hide it out of fear of being judged, but I will not. I will tell everyone: I cried.
Never again would my grandmother recognize me. It is not fair that someone who was once a kindergarten teacher, who had done so much for me and my mother, was now robbed of what was so rightfully hers, her memory. Nothing belongs to one person more than their own thoughts and memories, but hers were taken from her. I could not, perhaps still cannot, understand why she was chosen, why she was the one to lose her own beliefs, theories. It is one of the questions I would ask God, or whoever or whatever took my grandmother from me.
When I felt more relaxed and slightly less distraught, I walked back out. Quietly strolling down the hall, I stopped at her room. No one was there because my parents, sister, and grandmother were in the television room. So, slowly, I crept inside and sat on the bed. Reaching under her bedside table, I brought out a box my mother made for her, filled with pictures of my grandma, mother, uncles, aunts, cousins, and friends. As I looked, I suddenly stopped. In front of me was a picture of my grandmother. Standing in front of a tree, she looked to be in her mid thirties, with long black hair. All my life, I had been told that my grandmother was a beauty, so I was not surprised by her striking appearance. Instead, I was transfixed by the depth of her calm, knowing gaze, and the picture revealed a profoundly subtle side of her that I had never seen in other pictures. Her smile showed no teeth, just a small upward curve of her thin lips, and there was, somewhere, a shimmering inward beauty radiating from her. That image woke something, it illuminated something, a rare acceptance that I had not experienced since before my grandmother was diagnosed.
Out of nowhere, I remembered a quotation from her favorite poet, Hafiz, that she would always recite: “Even after all this time The sun never says to the earth, “You owe Me.” Look what happens with A love like that, It lights the Whole Sky.”
Looking at the picture of my grandmother, a flood of memories of how she was before the disease rushed back to me. How her eyes twinkled when telling a story, how she would hum when music was playing, how delicious her cooking was, how much she loved me and my sister and my mother, and not once did she ever say, “You owe me”. Not when she raised and cared for my mother, nor did she say it when she watched and gave advice to me and my sister. Now, she was the vulnerable, weak one, who needed our love more than anything in the world. So, we gave our love, as freely and plentily as she had given her love to us. Hiding the picture in my back pocket, I carefully closed the lid of the picture box. Stowing it beneath the table once more, I walked out to the television room.
Everyone was preparing to leave, so I followed them. When we left, I looked behind me, and for just a brief second, I saw that familiar look of understanding, that twinkle in her eye, the calm smile. It was like old times, when she would tell stories and throw her head back and laugh with me. In an instant, she was Maliha again. But, as all things do, it left.
I am glad, if not relieved, that the last image I can conjure of that day is of my grandmother’s eyes. They are sincere, genuine, and tender, welcoming me into her warm, loving embrace. They are not from a picture, or any clear memory I have of her. Just a figment of my imagination. Sunlight brightens the right side of her face, and I can tell she is outside. I can almost smell the Earth around her and hear the grass rustle with the soft breeze as the sun slowly sets. I cannot say the image is clear. In fact, it is almost a blur in my memory, like an unsteady camera took the picture, only seen through an unclear, perfect haze. A slight glare from the sunlight taints the view. My grandmother’s deep, brown eyes are wrinkled at the edges, hinting to a smile somewhere else. The image just cuts off abruptly, so I cannot see her thin lips, her smile.
But I am not sad. No, no, all is well. No sadness or grief burdens me. She is there, my grandmother, still there, somewhere. That image makes me happy, not sad, because I know, even though I cannot see it, that she is smiling at me, a majestic, radiant smile.
About the Author: Haris Hosseini, 14, won a top prize in the National Council of Teachers of English Promising Young Writers Program with this essay. He and his family participate in Walk to End Alzheimer’s on Team Kayoumy. They walk in support of his grandmother Maliha Kayoumy, as well as countless others living with Alzheimer’s disease.
Haris’s father is New York Times best-selling author Khaled Hosseini, author of The Kite Runner, A Thousand Splendid Suns and And the Mountains Echoed.