“Abuelita, soy yo, Corey.” [Grandma, it’s me.]
I felt a strong sting of pain in my chest when my grandmother did not remember who I was.
Her eyes were full of confusion as she pushed me away.
My grandmother, my abuelita, was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s at the age of seventy seven.
The woman who raised me for the entirety of my childhood while both of my parents worked, was taken from us too suddenly. She was here physically, but the illness worsened quickly and she had difficulties remembering any of us.
I did not know it then, but I wish I knew then what I know now. I wish I had a time machine to go back in time and live those moments once again. As an immature teenager, I took time for granted because I thought I had more of it. I hold that guilt with me everyday and it weighs me down like a pile of bricks.
The little apartment in the South Bronx on 146th Street and St. Anns, I remember like the back of my hand. My grandmother lived on the 4th floor at the very end of the long corridor with the green tiled floor which had the overwhelming smell of Clorox after they were cleaned, and the pasty white walls that looked like they went on forever. The halls always smelled of cigarettes, the sound of children playing would echo through the corridor, and the elderly couples would play their salsa music as they cooked. The aroma of arroz con gandules [rice with peas] would overtake your senses, but in a good way.
The elevator in the building was painted a neon orange color, which stood out from the rest of the mundane colored walls. Sometimes my mom and I would end up waiting 20 minutes or so for it to pick us up on the ground floor. I would bring my book-bag full of books to read and coloring books. I have always been an avid reader. Abuelita would always have crossword puzzles to do when I would got tired of reading. My mom would drop me off around 6am and before she would leave, she would say, “You better not give grandma a hard time, and make sure you do your homework. She is going to give me a report when I come back. If you misbehave, no ice cream after dinner.” I would give Mommy a nod and run immediately into the living room.
You had to walk through 3 different doors to reach the end of the corridor. My grandma was the last door on your right hand side and lived right next door to this wonderful Puerto Rican family, who always looked out for my grandmother especially when she became really sick. I used to have play dates with the family’s grandchildren. My grandmother always kept me in sight, as she was a worrier and watched me like a hawk. The girls and I would play hide and seek or with our barbie dolls.
The living room was decent sized, the floors were square white tiles, which were always freezing cold whenever my cousin Kimberly and I would sit there as grandma brushed our hair. The sofa was black and white, covered with a plastic lining to avoid it from getting dirty. The television was situated by the door across from the sofa. On the wall to the left of the sofa was this oval shaped, gold mirror my grandmother had hung up for years. By the window behind the sofa, my grandmother kept all of her plants. She had a green thumb and loved to care for them. She would water them every morning at the same time. To the right of the sofa was a dresser that held family photos and many of her elephant decorations she loved to collect. This is why most of my family members today keep some resemblance of an elephant whether its a key-chain, a stuffed animal, elephant salt and pepper shakers, a dining set with elephants printed on them, or a tattoo on our bodies.
To the right of the living room was the dining room table. The kitchen was pretty small. The microwave, stove, and fridge were lined up side by side on the same wall. My grandma kept her coffee pot, microwave, and toaster on the counter top, with her little jar she would keep sugar in. The hallway consisted of the closet which held jackets and coats, towels, shower curtains, and miscellaneous household items. The first door on your left was my uncle’s bedroom which fit a bed, a TV, a dresser, and had a small window in the corner. If you continued walking straight, the bathroom was the smallest part of the house. The toilet fit in one corner, you had the sink, the cabinet above the sink, and the shower. The last section of the apartment was my grandmother’s room where I spent most of my time. I slept in there with my grandma when we would have sleep overs. I would spend hours in there watching Cyber-chase during the early morning hours, once my homework was finished of course, and once it hit noon, my grandma and I would sit and watch The Price Is Right, while drinking our cafe with toast. I was not allowed to drink coffee until I was in about middle school, so most of the time grandma would make me some farina for breakfast.
Once The Price Is Right ended, we would both take a walk to the corner store, the ‘bodega,’ [corner store.] We would lock the door, walk down the corridor, and wait the 15 minutes for the elevator to arrive. When we entered, Abuela would tell me to be careful not to touch the walls or the buttons because residents would often urinate in there. It would take about 5-10 minutes to reach the ground floor, depending on if we stopped at other floors to pick up more people. When we finally reached the ground floor, Abuela would check her mailbox and we would begin our afternoon activities. I was not allowed to walk anywhere without holding her hand. Our walk was always filled with neighbors greeting my grandmother and wishing her well. We walked about 2 blocks before we reached the supermarket. The school children would usually be outside eating the ices they had just bought. The elderly men would stand outside and speak to each other about their days. I would usually push the blue cart for Abuelita because I enjoyed doing it. I felt like a grown-up doing my grocery shopping. She would go immediately over to the lotto counter to play her numbers and I was tall enough to see all the candy. I would peer through the glass and ask Abuela if she could buy me a lollipop or a milky-way, which was my favorite. She would always tell me I needed to take care of my beautiful teeth and in order to prevent cavities, we would limit the amount of candy I could eat. She would buy me one piece of candy and we would proceed to do our food shopping.
When we returned to the apartment, we would put away groceries and Abuelita would begin cooking lunch or early dinner. I absolutely adored when she made my favorite, arroz con salchichas [rice with sausages] and to drink, we would either have pineapple soda or mango juice, which was Abuela’s favorite. We would sit to eat and Abuela always served everyone else first. She would ensure we had our drinks, napkins, and utensils. She would eat standing up, but she always waited until the pot was half empty so she could take the burnt portion of the rice. After we ate, she would sit with me in front of the TV, brush my hair, and make braids to contain my long curly locks. We would spend the rest of the afternoon watching novelas until my mom came to pick me up. If Abuela gave a good report, I would be rewarded with ice cream as Mommy had promised.
When she was first diagnosed with this illness, the doctors told us she would have lucid moments where she would remember us. But it was hard to tell when the switch would flip and she would leave us again.
I felt at home wherever she was. The confines of that apartment are embedded in my memory. There was a certain stillness I felt when I was with my grandma. I always felt safe and loved. When she was taken from us, I lost that sense of home and sense of purpose. I have struggled with overcoming my guilt of not spending more time with her, but I know she has forgiven me. Whenever I need a little pick me up, I feel her here with me. I feel her presence. And when I’m feeling so lost, like I cannot find my way through the wreckage, she leads me to the light once more.
Time is fleeting. I know you are in a better place now watching over us, my sweet guardian angel.
Te amo. . . [I love you]