Today would have been my grandmother’s 77th birthday. In her memory, here are two essays. One written by me. The other by my daughter — who is named after my grandmother.
Her Bohemian spirit led to painting. Her southwest inspired paintings would be collected by John Wayne and Shirley Temple Black. She would teach classes with Leo Politi and trade poses with other minor Los Angeles artists of the period. In early 1960, she was a regular at Hollywood hotspots like the Dresden Lounge and Morrow’s.
Years passed and we grew up. Her painting style changed. Her work went from western landscapes and portraits to loose, impressionistic renditions of trees. The same tree. Over and over and over again. This was the first hint of the Alzheimer’s.
I named my daughter after her. They would share the same traits, both beautiful and artistic. Later, when my grandmother was deep into her hallucinated mind-wasting madness, my daughter would be the only person she would be able to recognize. Her long-haul trucker husband, her twin angels, and her namesake were at her side during her last days in this world. She was in a coma, nurtured slowly towards death by way of palliative Hospice care.
I had a Jungian therapist who once told me that we are put on this earth to pay the debts of our grandparents. I feel the weight of this debt. Debt that has been demanding to be set right over the course of oh so many generations. I am left with the thought that we can never really resolve the debt to others; we can only build karmic debt within ourselves.
Mi abuela, Liz, passed away from complications of Alzheimer’s November 14, 2010.
When I was younger, I remember our long car-ride to my family’s ancestral city in a small, rural part of New Mexico. The roads got smaller, and my mind expanded, eager to carouse with my cousins, and taste the best homemade Mexican food in the little town: Sopaipillas, red chili, and fluffy tortillas. As my imagination roared, and undoubted innocence peered through my brown eyes, I could not yet grasp much of what I heard. But despite my youthful perspective, there’s one thing to this day I remember my mother telling me on that unending ride.“You were born the last of five living generations of incredible women,” she said; and I looked up at my four elders, in that house overflowing of family members. I looked up at those four women, seeing nothing less than incredible. Each and everyone of my grandmothers had an impact on my life, but the most significant, had to be my Great-Grandmother, Elizabeth. My grandma is the strongest, most beautiful, craziest, and artistic being I have every had in my life. There is nothing I loved more than spending time in her unique home, listening to her wacky stories, and walking back and forth down that pine-tree shaded street in East-L.A. Thinking back now, the single year between these memories with her, and when it all came crashing down, dragged on like an endless road. My grandmother’s Alzheimer’s got the best of her, and wacky stories transformed into slurred speech and frequent drives to the house that no longer felt like a home. That crushing experience transformed me as a person; but it also helped me realize so much about my family, and about myself.
My grandmother was beautiful. A Latina Elizabeth Taylor. Photographs of her model days of 1959 hang in my home. Her dark curly hair just like mine, and radiant smile brighten the photo. “Liz” always incorporated her artistry with her fashion sense, never dressed down, and applied her exaggerated eyebrows and pink lipstick until she was well into her seventies. She never gave up. Her spirit would never wane. Married at sixteen, and divorced two years later, Liz set out to pursue a career in Hollywood. A woman known for always speaking her mind, never overlooking an adventure, and incorporating her eccentricities into her artwork — though I never knew her that way. As I grew older, the Alzheimer’s progressed, I came to recognize it was no longer just her aberrant nature. She started slowing down; forgetting my name, singing songs whose lyrics didn’t make sense. Our visits became more frequent, my mother tense, my Grandpa with a countenance of denial and confusion. I remember the throbbing in my head listening to the discussions while sitting on that over-worn bench on the front porch. They wrung their hands and held back tears as they debated her well-being. I sat there and just held my grandma’s hand, wanting it all to miraculously be better, but knowing that wasn’t an option.
I don’t remember crying once. At the time, I didn’t feel the need to. The rush of it all came so suddenly, and I never took the time to realize it’s severity. If perfect existed, in my eyes, she was, and perfect could never disappear, could it? The doctor said she had blood clots in her brain. They’d formed when the car hit her, and remained inside of her untreated for all those weeks. When her body started slowing down, medical practitioners concluded it was fatal. Her speech started to come in a small whisper, like a coarse piece of sandpaper, until it stopped all together. Her eyes opened small and fluttered constantly, and then they were shut. It was one of those words heard on tasteless mini-series on television, but it never sounded as real as it did when it came out of my mother’s mouth. “…a coma,” she said. I ignored it, praying it wasn’t true. The cold waiting room chairs were my bed on those late nights at the hospital. My mom and her twin sister sat with my grandmother in the small room, but I didn’t want to see her, not in the state she was in. She wouldn’t look the same, and I didn’t want to lose the flawless image I had of her in my mind. A few days later, tests confirmed there was no coming back, no miracle recovery, and no breakthrough surgery. They moved her back into the convalescent care her and my grandpa knew as home, and she was placed into Hospice care. Ladies in white put her in a medical bed next to their old one, and placed a machine with strange tubes that made soft, synchronized beeping noises. That’s when I finally went to see her. She was barely there. Her usually olive-colored New-Mexican skin was pale, and her eyes were shut. Her overworked, delicate hand of 79 years was in my mother’s. My grandma lay in peace as a priest came and said her “Last Rights.” He placed a small beaded crucifix in her left hand. She was quiet in her never-ending sleep, but she still held on. My mom and my aunt, two of my elders sat next to me, and she, my fourth laid there breathing crudely. “We all love you, Grandma. Your family is here, and we love you.” My mother whispered with wet eyes. “You can let go.”
On November 14th, 2010, my grandmother lost her battle with Alzheimer’s. There wasn’t much left of her. Her eccentric home in East L.A. was emptied of its capricious nick-knacks, and what little was brought to Roseville was dispersed among family members. With me, she left a gaudy box of 1950’s costume jewelry, a small vibrant-colored painting, as well as the backbone, dauntlessness, elegance, and modesty that had taken her so far in life. It took my grandmother’s passing for me to realize the inheritance she’d truly left with me. It had taken 12 months of undeniable struggle, and everlasting grief for me to understand. Now, with almost a year since her passing, I regret not spending that moment to tell her how much she meant to me. I can only wish to go back and explain to her that she was this undefined perfection that has made me the person I am. From this experience, I have learned the importance of family, the significance of life, and how easily it can be taken away, and I have come into touch with the person I am and the person I want to be. Now, in a world of billions, in a small town, and in a tight family of incredible women, I have decided to live the legacy my great-grandmother did, and to strive to be all that she was and more.