When I took this image, I asked my Grammie to walk into the woods so I could photograph her. As I fiddled with the camera, I watched as she walked away. I exposed the film and continued to watch her walk deeper into the woods. After a minute, I called her back. I have a feeling if I hadn’t, she may have kept walking forever…
My Grammie, she played a huge part in my life. She essentially raised my siblings and me. When I began pre-school, my mother went to nursing school. She studied hard and worked hard while my dad worked and traveled with the military. Grammie was there in the morning for breakfast, to help pack our lunches and get us out the door to the bus. We would come home and she’d be there to cook us dinner and talk to us about education. She instilled in me at a young age an affinity of the English language. She, a retired teacher, would talk to us about grammar and the rules of proper English. And I still have a love for the language; although I will never be a master of it.
A few years ago, we noticed that she was in some kind of decline. It wasn’t Alzheimer’s, but something similar. Either way, most of my family was in denial, she was just too young for any brain issues. As the years passed, she only got worse. Her physical health was fine, but her mental health took a dip. My parents moved from my home in Maine to a new house in New Mexico in 2008. Once the house was finished in 2010, they moved my Gram out to live with them. My mother flew to Maine, packed up my Gram’s belongings and drove across country with her. After day one she realized that this trip was more than she expected. Gram was lost. She was often confused by her surroundings in the mornings, but had some slight ideas of what she was doing and where she was going.
While I was out in New Mexico this past Christmas and New Year, I finally got to see the decline that my Gram was actually in. I was pleased to hear that she was aware of her mind going, but heartbroken by some of her actions. My brother, Anthony, told me one day that he had already said ‘goodbye’ to Gram, a while back. That idea really helped me cope with some of how I was feeling. I knew she wasn’t the same Gram that I had known. But physically, she was still there all the same. Same warm embrace, same silly smile and cutting sense of humor. But there was a blankness at times. She’d be lost within her home. She’d ask things like “When is daddy coming to pick me up?” or “Can you believe all this snow? It’s summertime, isn’t it?” Day-after-day you’d deal with the same questions or comments. She refused to take her medications on account of never being sick or told to by a doctor. But each day was new to her. If she had gone to the doctor one day, there was a good chance that she didn’t remember it upon her return to the house, let alone the next day.
One day she asked me where the stairs were to get downstairs. I assured her that it was a one level house and there was no downstairs. She followed up by asking about the kids upstairs. Again, I repeated it was a one level home. She then asked when I thought the kids downstairs had last had a meal. I didn’t know how to answer, so I made a joke of it. We laughed and moved on. Hours later it dawned on me. The kid downstairs… that was me. Back home in Maine, I had the basement room. The kids upstairs were my siblings… but she forgets we’re all grown. It made me wonder who she thought she was talking to. Sometimes, I know for sure, she knew exactly who I was. But there was always some doubt… Lately, I’ve been taking more and more self portraits, based mostly around my feelings or emotions. I never emote in person, but when I’m alone I can feel and show my vulnerabilities to the camera.
Left: Self Portrait with Grammie (I), Ranchos de Taos, New Mexico, 2011
Right: Self Portrait with Grammie (II), Ranchos de Taos, New Mexico, 2011
Click Thumbnails for Full Size
I called the house a couple weeks ago, while I was in Seattle, and she answered the phone. She didn’t know where anyone was. She was convinced everyone had left her and they were not coming back. I even doubt she knew who she was talking to. She wouldn’t say “I love you” to me after I said it to her. Broken up, I let her go and tried to remember that it wasn’t personal. This isn’t the Grammie I once knew, and that I had already said goodbye. And most importantly, it isn’t her fault. It’s no one’s fault.
Last Thursday, my parents admitted my Gram to a nursing home. She had become too much of a burden. My mother is clearly having the most difficult time with this progression of life; watching her own mother decline past a place where she can care for her. She visits everyday, at least for now. One day when she visited over lunch, she found Gram walking arm-in-arm with another, probably equally demented, woman. As much as a painful move this was for my family, I think everyone is in a better place, currently. Gram is no longer living in a house where everyone leaves for the day. She finally has the company she longed for.
This last photo I took with an image in mind. I guess I misjudged my original intent. It’s quite foreboding, but I like the comfort of it. Rest well, Grammie…