There are times I’ve found myself in moments so surreal that it felt like my experiences were happening remotely, far away from me. I think everyone has encountered that feeling before, when you seem to be a bystander to your own existence, a fly on the wall watching yourself go through something.
Often, these times seem be connected to some great tragedy or hardship. It is then, when your stomach seems to fall out, like the first great drop of a rollercoaster, or that tingly swing set feeling. Sweat starts beading from a clammy forehead and your throat goes dry. But even as you are experiencing this, the camera shifts perspective and in your mind’s eye you are now watching as a spectator. I had a moment like this just a week or so ago, not filled with terror but surreal in its own right.
I visited my grandma, my father’s mother, in a convalescent home. Or maybe it was a rest home…I don’t quite know if there is a difference, or if it matters what we call those places where people end up getting stored as their candles flicker out. She is by no means ignored the way many people are there. My relatives, who just aren’t able to provide the degree of care that a Parkinson’s patient requires, visit Grandma Nina almost daily.
I’ve watched many of my older relatives pass away, some suddenly and some ever so slowly. My Aunt Ruby gradually disappeared into the couch over a period of years as the same disease that is taking my grandma gnawed at her body. I am still not sure which kind of death seems nobler, disappearing overnight or fighting with every breath. I think the quick version has more appeal to me. I’d rather remember Aunt Ruby playing her organ or making me a sandwich, than be stuck with the picture that is now her predominant profile in my mind. I hope that others remember me at my best someday, as well.
But with my grandma there in that home I don’t have that choice. I have very little memory of her at all outside of the other day. For reasons I won’t discuss here, I haven’t talked to her since early childhood. When I think back, there are only snippets in my mind of her or my paternal grandpa. It may be sad, but it is the truth, and I have chosen not to try to deconstruct the reasons why things were the way they were—instead to deal with things as they are now.
So there I sat, with a virtual stranger in that place, talking about the weather and birds, and a tree that was blooming nearby. And I was outside of myself, very far away but wanting to be close…wanting memories that just aren’t there. And wishing that there was something else, anything I could talk about… something that had more meaning.
In the end as I left, she gave me a long slow look—and maybe I returned that gaze, I don’t know. Her eyes said that she realized she didn’t know if we’d meet again, and that she also wished there was more to talk about than the weather and the birds. I think maybe, despite me being outside of myself, that presence, us both in that moment was itself just enough. —Ryan