I used to hold my grandmother’s hands, usually when crossing the street. But last night she held mine, both of them, as I leaned awkwardly over the hospital bed. Her grip was surprisingly strong. I looked down at the nearly translucent skin on her hands, which are bruised and scabbed from a fall, and remembered them tanned and covered in mango juice. My grandmother’s hands always bring the same image. She is standing in front of her sink with a freshly picked mango cradled in her hand, and a paring knife in the other. Ribbons of yellow-orange mango peel are curling into the sink, and juice is streaming down her hands. I could be anywhere, perhaps standing behind her, or maybe watching from the screened porch, a skinny kid lying on a yellow chaise lounge, surrounded by tropical flowers and writing the memoirs of a ten-year-old in her head.
Mangoes don’t grow in Indiana, where I grew up, and where Grandma was born a few days before women belatedly secured their right to vote. But they were abundant on the trees in her Florida backyard. It was there I learned to eat them, usually plucked straight off the tree, because Grandma disdained any non-local mango. “They pick them green,” she said of the fruit shipped from elsewhere. “And the flavor is awful.” She’s right, of course. I can buy them at an international market ten minutes from my house these days, but the taste and texture isn’t the same.
The mango juice has long since been washed from her hands, and they intermittently squeeze mine when the pain comes. Her face is a mess, her lips a jumble of scabs, dried blood and bruising. This is what happens when you have dementia, and you forget that you’re recovering from a hip replacement, and you try to walk without assistance. You fall down. And that fall cascades into a stroke – or perhaps vice versa, the doctors are not entirely sure – and you end up gripping your granddaughter’s hands in a hospital bed.
I visit her again the next night, and she doesn’t know who I am. At first she thinks she’s back at her assisted living facility and I’m the lady who takes her dinner order. I’ve heard about this, about what a bruising experience it is for the formerly familiar not to be recognized by their loved one. But it doesn’t feel that way to me. Because the truth is, I don’t recognize her, either. I still smile. I still speak gently. But I know it sounds stilted and inauthentic, because for the life of me, there is nothing about the lady in the bed that seems familiar to me. And this feels like a terrible betrayal of everything she gave me, which was generous beyond measure. But I can’t change it. All I can do is continue to pretend. And so I do.