The seventh of September has always been a date I have remembered as being a day filled with birthdays. I suppose it makes sense considering that one of the biggest nights of l’amour occurs nine months prior (that would be New Year’s Eve for my mathematically challenged friends). Not only do I have numerous friends and a cousin who share this birthday, but it is also the birthday of one of the most special, important and biggest influences on my life – my grandmother.
Today I celebrate the 91st birthday of my grandmother, Thelma or “Thelby” as my cousins and I have affectionately called her. Some people who have known her throughout her life may have various other words in which they would “affectionately” call her – likely behind her back. She was never known for her calm and casual demeanor, political correctness, abundant empathy or sympathetic disposition. In fact, many people including her own family could say she wasn’t the easiest person to love and in all honesty, they would be correct.
Without sounding cliché I must say that my relationship with my grandmother was different. Throughout my formative years my grandmother was a significant part of my life. She lived with me and my mother and helped care for me while my mother was working more than 12 hours a day to make sure I had all the things in life she didn’t have. My grandmother was more than a guardian; she was a teacher, a nurse, a playmate and the Queen of sour dough bread and pimento cheese sandwiches. She was suspicious of everyone, blatantly direct and often rude regardless as to whether or not the person or situation warranted her normally gruff reaction. But, to me she has always been security blanket, my center of tradition and my beacon of love.
Driving into work this morning I heard the song “Don’t’ Go Breaking My Heart” by the flamboyantly arrogant Elton John. Immediately, I was thwarted back to 1976 and the first time I heard this song. My grandmother had decided that we deserved a little shopping therapy and lunch on the town. She dressed me in my finest Granimal ensemble (I believe it was burgundy plaid bell-bottom pants with a matching burgundy shirt) and we walked down to the bus stop to begin our journey to fascinating and glamorous downtown Lexington, Kentucky, which to me was comparable to entering the Kingdom of Oz.
The trip was no more than six or seven city blocks, but my grandmother knew that I loved to ride the bus and glare at all of the strange and unusual people all heading to the same destination, but for reasons I would imagine (based on their appearance) and share with my grandmother in little make-believe stories as we bounced down the road.
Our first stop was always Woolworth’s. Departing the bus I would squeeze my grandmother’s hand as tightly as possible, fearing that the hippies and hobos might grab me and take me away. (Yes, hippies and hobos are the actual words my grandmother would use to frighten me – but that’s another story for another day). We would walk into the store and it would take every ounce of inner-strength I had to remain patient as we slowly (it was probably like 15 minutes, but to an anxious child it seemed like an eternity) walked through the store stopping by women’s apparel, home goods, and even the children’s department before finally entering the sacred and beloved toy department. It was actually more like a toy kiosk consisting of a few shelves of inexpensive toys and trinkets, but to me is was Mecca.
If I had been good thus far, which I always was, then I would be treated to a toy of my choice. Items like a deck of Old Maid Cards, a set of jacks or a yo-yo were the typical rewards for my pristine behavior, but on this occasion it was a sock monkey puppet and I couldn’t wait to get home to begin my life as a puppeteer and give G.I. Joe a new arch nemesis. But first, we had to treat ourselves to a fine dining experience at the drugstore next door. Why they ever removed the mini-diners out of drugstores I’ll never understand, but I suppose have more space to sell the plethora of feminine hygiene products now available makes more financial sense. Sorry, I digressed…
After inhaling a very greasy, but fabulous grilled cheese sandwich and a cherry coke I was ready for us to make our way back to the bus stop and then home because that puppet in the Woolworth’s bag was screaming to come out and play. As we were waiting to receive our change “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart” began playing on the overhead radio. Apparently, my grandmother had heard this song before and sang it to me as she spun me around and around on the stool at the counter. For whatever reason I found this extremely funny (probably because I was six years old and laughed at everything, including boogers and overweight people) and hysterically laughed until I almost threw up. As we were walking out, I looked up to my grandmother and said, “Thelby, I would never break your heart.” She replied, “I know you wouldn’t and no matter what you ever do you never will.” Needless to say, those words, that song and that entire day have lived with me, fresh in my brain and close to my heart for 36 years.
Unfortunately, I can’t share this very special day with my grandmother. Not because she isn’t living – actually, she’s in excellent physical shape for a woman her age. I can’t share this day with her because she doesn’t remember me. She doesn’t remember our bus ride, our lunch or singing that song to me. In fact, she doesn’t remember any of our special times together because she has Alzheimer’s.
I don’t think anyone who doesn’t have a loved one with Alzheimer’s can understand the emotional impact it has on you. Basically, you have to mourn the loss of your loved one twice – the first time when they forget you and the second time when they physically pass away. For me, being forgotten by someone as important to you as your own mother has been devastating and that pain is something I choose and need to suppress – at least for now – as unhealthy as that may be. So, while I could go visit her today or even call her – she won’t know who I am and/or wouldn’t remember I was there moments after I was gone. For me, I think it is best that I celebrate her birthday by celebrating my memories of her with me – times of our lives when a broken heart was the farthest thing from our minds.
Hearing that song today was perfect and it triggered one of my happiest memories of her on her special day. Happy birthday, Thelby.