Your first birthday had some stiff competition, buddy. Nana was here, as the photos show. I’m afraid the photos of the two of you together won’t stir much inside of you, if I’m right about the way things are headed. Your relationship with Nana is the victim of shitty circumstances and bad timing. I’m sorry about that. It’s not fair. Consider this note a companion to those pictures — maybe it can stir something in you that the photos can’t.
Nana’s brain was failing in new and undignified ways while she was here. There were times she couldn’t remember your name. That was a deep fear she had years ago when she found out she had Alzheimer’s, that she’d forget her grandchildren’s names. It’s coming to pass but I was reassured that, in spite of it, she loved you deeply.
Maybe you’re skeptical. You have every right to be. How could she love me if she couldn’t remember my name? Totally fair. I hope you never have to make this judgment for yourself, but you have to believe me when I say that she still knew you, even if she didn’t know what to call you. Alzheimer’s works like that, separating things you would never believe could be separated, like love from names.
Why do I believe she loved you? I believe this because she cried on the phone a year ago when I told her you were here and that we had given you the name of her father, a smart, principled man she admired and loved deeply. I believe that the purity of emotion worked some magic. I believe it punched through and affected a little cluster of neurons in Nana’s brain. I believe a new memory bloomed in the most hostile conditions.
The irony is that a similar memory bloomed in your head this weekend, forever shrouded but for very different reasons. You won’t remember her, but you loved her, too. Your brain lit up when Nana got here and showed an interest in your trusty soup ladle; it fired again every time she sat on the floor and played cars with you, calling you Alex. The two of you shared something special; that neither of you will remember it makes it terribly sad but no less special.
On the morning I flew Nana back to Iowa, we left before you woke up. When you did, I’m told you went straight to Nana’s bed to see if she was awake. You were distressed when she wasn’t there. On the plane, Nana took out her phone and, with an unsteady finger, swiped through a hundred photos of you, stopping at each to zoom in as far as she could and giggle. I hadn’t heard Nana giggle in a very, very long time. That sounds like love to me.
Happy birthday, wild guy. One for the ages.