“Do you have a girlfriend?” my grandmother asks, her voice folding into a lofty, menacing cadence.
It was a question I’d grown far too acquainted with, one jammed and bulging with all the familiar violence of optimism and strenuous anticipation. Most often, I’d feel it materialize in locker rooms and over school lunches and at family dinners, splitting the air so sharply I always feared it might draw blood and expose something hidden.
I learned to disarm this sort of question quite naturally — or at least I thought. Offer some vague answer. Conjure a lame or jaded excuse, for instance, about how morally reproachable it was to be so preoccupied with love “at this age.” Mention a tragic love story. My preferred answer, of course, at least as I remember it, was the practiced “I’m just so busy with school and sports” manoeuvre, which, comically and unfailingly, redirected any conversation into some contrived celebration of my athletic merit.
I stuttered out of the question. Of course, by this time my grandmother had already met my boyfriend, only she hadn’t understood the nature of our relationship. To her, he might have been a friend — albeit a pretty one — who shuttled in and out of my home frequently and occasionally chatted her up about the weather (it was cold), or her hair (it looked nice), or the weekend (it was finally here). I imagine she might have enjoyed his presence much more than she enjoyed mine.
By this time, though, it was 2014 and I was nearing 17, and I wasn’t immune to the adolescent insecurities that swallow the self. I went the extra mile to stave off suspicious glances. I had adopted masculinity and heterosexuality as a conscious performance: the studied dropping of my voice, the closely monitored fashion, the censored gaze. That I had any success at all in convincing anyone of anything was a miraculous feat. Certainly any trained or mildly experienced eye would have seen I was a novice to the habit of pretending to be straight — and also a terrible actor. No one ever did.
Weeks later, my mother told her I was gay. I had just come out to the better part of my family, and I figured that by proxy, I could eliminate some of the anxiety that comes with having to make such an admission to a person you imagine will not accept it. My grandmother does not take things she does not want. And anyway, I could hardly handle another pair of eyes peeling apart my body and wondering what went wrong.
And so: my mother told her. I don’t know how or when she did, and I’m not terribly obsessed with ever getting a play-by-play. What I do know, though, is that my grandmother did not say any of the hideous things I expected her to. In fact her response, in spite of its harsh delivery, indicated a compassion and kindness I’ve yet to hear from her since then.
“I suppose I have to love him anyway.”
I don’t know that my answers to my grandmother’s incessant questions about girlfriends ever satisfied her. It didn’t seem to appease her the way it did other nosy people. Then again, I might be unreliable in my readings of her stoic expressions. I had little reference for anything, since I knew so little about her, at 17.
Before her world ended and she moved into ours, my grandmother occupied a strange and distant place in my life. She moved to Florida with her husband when I was still quite young, and her presence after that quickly became fleeting, rare. She was born and raised in Jamaica, a storybook land mass often measured in rampant violence against the queer community, amid its ugly transformation into a modern tourist destination. Later, she moved to New York City for love — at the onset of the Civil Rights Movement — and stayed for financial security. Eventually, she and the object of her desire migrated to Canada, where she stayed until I turned eight. It wasn’t until her husband died that she decided she needed my family, and it certainly wasn’t until she got sick with Alzheimer’s that she realized she needed to know whether I had a girlfriend. Of all the things, this was the incumbent subject of her deadened curiosities.
Several months later, in October, as my mother prepared Thanksgiving dinner and I sat across the table from my grandmother, the question invaded the room again. Her absent gaze returned. Her eyebrows furrowed. “When are you going to get a girlfriend,” she asked. I knew she wasn’t being malicious or intentionally ignorant. Still, it stung.
“I’m not,” I must have said. “I have a boyfriend. Don’t you remember?”
Of course, she did not. And why would she? Memory is a petty thing.
“You know, I’m not getting any younger,” she replied.
This exchange, among others, has grown increasingly frequent. My grandmother always refers to my partner as my “little friend” and often reminds me she’s “waiting for the day you bring a nice girl home.” She laughs when she says these things, and each time, it balloons from her chest as though she’s pulling joy from a place that hasn’t been used in a very long time. The redundant obsession with my dating life strikes me as a kind of playground curiosity, only the particulars of our awkward situation make it all the more noxious and serrated.
“When are you going to get a girlfriend?”
It’s difficult coming out to your family, over and over again. Though the moment, in its infinite repetition, has lost its gravity, the experience remains both daunting and interminably pristine. Pain is a terrible thing to get used to, and though coming out to my grandmother has become banal, it has not become painless. It’s become habitual, but not without the seizing tyranny of anxiety. There are days when I reveal myself to her several times in a single conversation. (Perhaps responding to a scoff she makes when two men kiss on television, or when she asks, “Whose shoes are these?” and points at the foreign Nikes my partner has discarded by the front door on his way in.) Each time, the flicker of recognition in her eyes, a telling sign that she recalls having heard all these things before, seems to dim and grow further and further away.
I know she doesn’t mean anything by it. Her cluelessness is not the chosen kind. Still, I keep hoping she’ll remember and I won’t have to sit through the discomfort of coming out again and again. My grandmother is not hostile, so I rarely expect a fight, but she can be unpredictable. Things that amuse her one day can bore or irritate her on another. I’m not always certain of how these moments, which we’ve both lived many times over, will end: in sweetness, or in silence.
It was late when my mother’s phone rang. “You need to come get me.” My grandmother’s voice was twisted and agonized. “Tonight,” she demanded, theatrically. “I’m dying.”
That same night, my mother bought a one-way airplane ticket and boarded a flight to Florida; the following week, her mother was on our doorstep, unrecognizable. Half a year had passed since I’d last seen her, and she appeared to have shrunk considerably since then. Her eyes wandered. She spoke less. She got angry often. She’d never been a particularly tall or physically imposing woman, but she appeared frail, as though if you hugged her too tightly, her body might snap and shatter. This was months before we knew she had Alzheimer’s disease, so I attributed her irascibility to the death of her husband and her stature as an organic state of life. When Alzheimer’s happens to you, when it descends suddenly upon a loved one in all its degrading, prodromal glory, it arrives first as a fantastical event and then as an explosion, only the explosion is protracted and it seems to occur, violently, again and again, almost every single day after that.
The months that followed my grandmother’s arrival marked a definitive cognitive regression. My mother scheduled her for a neurological evaluation; by the fall she had been diagnosed with “probable” Alzheimer’s disease. My grandmother grew exceedingly combative, lashing out at anyone unfortunate enough to stand within her creeping jurisdiction. She began forgetting things that should have been indelible: where she was, how she got there, my name. These periods of increased confusion are colloquially known as “sundowning” (in my home, we’ve informally named them “episodes” to avoid the unsavoury medical jargon) and predictably give way to a sweetness that springs from nowhere, entirely unaware of the havoc just wreaked. She can’t care about the rubble her anger leaves behind because she can’t remember the kingdom before the storm.
“That person isn’t me,” she will sometimes say. “That is not me.” (“That person” once viciously accused me of stealing from her, told my mother she wished she’d die and called my sister a “bitch.”)
Alzheimer’s steals the most precious things from its victim. Most tragic is the way it attacks the sense of self, splintering a person’s identity and hiding it away beneath the fog of the mind. For example: my grandmother no longer dresses up for no reason. She does not stuff pearls into her earlobes or fret neurotically about the state of her hair. She doesn’t spray perfume. She does not smear lipstick on her mouth just to sit in bed and watch television. Instead, she moves through hallways like a ghost, barely making any noise, save for the hushed conversations she has with herself. She has taken to spending most of her time reclined in bed, sleeping through the day and lapsing into a paranoid confusion when night falls. Sometimes she sits in a chair in the living room, staring at the blank TV screen. When she closes her eyes and falls into this position, into this childlike rocking, I imagine how time must move for her. She blinks, an hour passes. She blinks again, the sunlight escapes. She is trapped, it seems, in the sinking geographies of her mind. She’s out at sea, scrambling to find land.
Surely my grandmother will one day forget me. My name will become a balloon, slipping away from her bony hands and spiralling into the sky, just visible but vanishing further and further out of reach. Today, she takes a cocktail of pills to control a heart condition and her blood pressure and the myriad Alzheimer’s-induced symptoms, but she lacks the animation of a woman who has lived through some of the liveliest and most contentious moments in history.
It might seem insignificant in the cosmic, grand scheme of things, and perhaps it is, but throughout all the frothing histrionics and terrible banality of this warfare, I have most often thought about how my grandmother, who I’d previously thought to be perfectly healthy if not for her slightly odd and maladjusted nature, never got to know me, and after all of this, she never really would. The question has teeth only because it serves as a persisting reminder that we’ve both been robbed of the chance to have any relationship at all.
These mundane exchanges have become a kind of trippy emotional commerce, the kind of labour that leaves the body exhausted and impoverished of its desire to do anything, and perhaps, its capacity to. The trouble has become that any small-muscled corrections — any gentle, nudging reminder, as in, “Grandma, I won’t ever have a girlfriend for you to meet because I’m gay” — have become a radioactive task, one I find best to avoid. Which is to say that over time, I’m learning to concede that there’s no neat or tidy way to find comfort in the idea that a loved one will someday forget you, and that, in fact, they already have. Maybe this is the curse of memory: that one day, you will inevitably forget.
In my latest conversation with my grandmother about my sexuality, it is 3 am, and I’ve found her downstairs, half her body hanging out the door, the late winter weather parading in from the front porch. She is yelling for my mother, who she claims she has seen meandering down the street, into the snow. My mother is upstairs, sleeping, I remind her. She is confused, irritated.
I ask her why she’s awake; it’s late and everyone in the entire house, perhaps the whole block, is sleeping, or at least trying to. She doesn’t understand. She’s not sleeping, she says, she’s up and wide awake. I tell her she’s woken me up, I was perfectly comfortable in bed, and my partner is trying to sleep: we have to be up early the next morning. She looks puzzled. “Your little friend is here?” she asks. I nod and await the nuclear discord. It never comes. She smiles a funny smile, the sort of smile you make when you’ve said something embarrassing and the only way out is to laugh it off. She laughs, pauses, and then, surprises me.
“Tell him I said hello.”