It was your 80th birthday and it was the first time I had ever seen you cry.
The family gathered around the dinner table in your apartment, not sure how we all managed to fit in there, but we made it work. We had family come up in from Puerto Rico. We all knew the disease would grow worse so we threw you this party while you were still you. You were not big on celebrations or gifts. My mom did not listen. She invited everyone and they all came. This showed how loved you were and how influential you were in our lives.
My mom bought you a vanilla cake which you loved. You sat at the head of the table. You wore a blue shirt with white polka dots. Your hair was brushed back and your nails polished. You sat with your hands in your lap under the table and you were looking down. I don’t think you liked the crowd very much. We all stood there taking pictures, but I didn’t. I stood there watching you; your every move. I kept thinking to myself, “Abuela, smile, it’s your birthday.”
I wish I knew what you were thinking in that very moment. You knew you were not yourself and you did not want your family to see you like this. I wanted so badly to take your pain from you and wish the sickness away. Everyone knew it would progressively get worse and we all wanted to savor our time together a little while longer. The doctor had given the prognosis and told us you would have moments where you would come in and out. You would shift back and forth between memories.
We sang you happy birthday. Certain family members said a few words and there was not a dry eye in the room. We shared laughs and tears. Our cousin from Puerto Rico wrote a story about you and how loved you were.
It was silent as she spoke. She paused during certain points to catch her breath and hold back the tears she knew would form. The words she spoke were full of warmth and love, but even still, they did not capture the woman you were and the influence you had on this family. I do not think any words can really do you justice, Abuela.
Then it happened. You raised your hand from beneath the table and you covered your eyes. You were crying. You were overwhelmed. Were you sad? Happy? I wish I knew.
This memory has been etched into my brain. I had to make sense of it, listen to my instinct, and write the story.
Such a cruel disease for the strongest, kindest woman we all knew. The Alzheimer’s ate away at your mind, body, and soul. With each bite it took more of you. Your ability to walk, your ability to eat, your ability to talk, your ability to embrace us in a hug and tell us you loved us. Your body grew thinner and colder. And with each passing moment, you were losing yourself and becoming weaker. We did everything we could to keep you here with us.
We would never be the same without you and I think we all have been a little broken ever since you left us.
But you gave me the strength. You taught me how to be strong even when I feel like my feet cannot carry me anymore. How to keep pushing forward. How to have faith that these dark times do not last.
You saved us all.