In 1959, William Mahoney slipped an engagement ring on the finger of Geraldine O’Connor, the daughter of a successful San Francisco mortician. Because of Geraldine’s nearsightedness, William’s romantic proposal sounded something like this: “put on your glasses.” Geraldine reported that she did just that, saw the ring, and “it’s been there every since.”
Geraldine and William Mahoney are my grandparents. I’ve always loved that story; my grandpa’s straight-forward, no nonsense proposal, and the way my grandma made it sound, many years after my grandpa’s passing, like it was the most romantic moment in history. When I found out yesterday that my grandma passed away, I forced myself to remember that story, and the many others she told me and we experienced together.
For the past several years, I watched my grandma’s mind slip quietly into the oblivion of dementia. It started when I was in college, and by the time I started grad school, she did a great job of mimicking conversational norms, but it was clear to those who knew her that she was no longer truly present. After a while, we became accustomed to grandma’s condition, numbed to the sadness of her cognitive departure. Dementia is a cruel disease, one that robs loved ones away in a slow decline, and after a while, death just seems inevitable. That is, of course, until the death itself actually occurs.
Since the news hit, I have been flooded with memories of our adventures and conversations. For the first time in years, I am remembering her as the woman who signed me up for tap lessons, took me hiking throughout the summer, bought me my first computer, and taught me how to properly eat at the dinner table. The frail body that haunted my eye lids is now replaced with the image of my grandma wearing old-fashioned glasses and long shorts, heading to the tennis court. Within the same day, I feel like I lost my grandma and got her back at the same time.
I was my grandma’s only grandchild. She showered me with affection and attention, with particular devotion to my education. She fulfilled many of the mandatory responsibilities of grandparenthood: she made cookies, we picked apples, she taught me manners, and she celebrated my triumphs. Until middle school, I spent Monday nights with my grandparents every week. Her house is my childhood home, the space where I feel most connected to my past and my family. It was where I feel home.
As I grew older, I realized she was more than just my grandma. She was a world traveler, a dog-lover, a devoted Catholic, a volunteer, a flirt, an educator, a loyal friend, a tennis player, and singer. She loved her friends, her sisters, men, and chocolate. And she loved me, so completely and fully, and her love helped to power me through my childhood and young adulthood. This is the woman I remember, the woman I will carry inside of my heart for the rest of my life. The dementia already stole years away from me and my grandma; now that she is gone, I will not let it also take away my memories of her vibrance, humor, and affection.