Our lives are in constant swing between joy and pain. It is my belief that this oscillation is a vital and inextricable part of our lives. Through the most painful of pains, we realize the most joyful of joys.
As a young child, I deeply feared my grandmother. Since 1980, six years before my birth, she had been slowly descending into the mental and physical hell of Alzheimer’s disease. By the time I was five – the age of my earliest memories – most of her memories had left her. She hardly recognized her own kin, she could not feed herself; most of the time she appeared irritated and confused, sitting in a large, cushioned, faded-brown chair in the corner of her old kitchen, warmed by the heat of an antiquated, white-iron stove.
Distance also added to her mystery. I rarely saw her. She lived in Ireland in a small, rural village called Kilkerrin in County Galway. My experiences with her were confined to short, annual summer visits with my family, where my Irish mother and American father would carry their five children across the Atlantic. A peaceful plane ride for our fellow passengers, I am sure.
One summer, I remember sitting across the kitchen from my grandmother, watching the perpetual chewing of her mouth, her hands rustling a dish towel, her feet softly, rhythmically pedaling the hard floor, as if she were hemming a dress on an invisible, antique sewing machine. She would often look up from her work, and glare at me mysteriously, at which I would quickly dart away. She was creating her own world, a world upon which I was encroaching; a world that I did not – or could not – belong to.
Another time I walked into the kitchen to see her standing, erect and formidable. “Hello, Granny,” I said to her meekly. “GET OUT O’THAT!” she screamed, whipping her dish towel – her permanent and transformative companion – down upon my face. It stung, and I cried and called for my mother, and confusion overwhelmed me. I could not make sense of her person. Never in my short life had I encountered such a mystery. In my young mind’s eye, my grandmother was a living ghost. So, naturally, I feared her.
Until one day, when once again I sat in my grandmother’s kitchen, watching her. A static-filled radio was playing the Angelus Bells, a call to prayer that rang every day at noontime. It appeared as if she was sitting indifferently, that the sound was another absurdity in her sense experience. After the last bell chimed, however, a traditional Irish song – accented with guitar and fiddle and bodhran – came through the speakers, and I watched my Grandmother’s eyes brighten, her foot tapping to the rhythm. A smile came across her face. Somewhere, beyond the grasp of that lethal disease, was a memory of this song. I like to think it was from her childhood; a memory so sacred and so joyful that even the deepest pain could not erase it.
My mother and sister recognized the tune also. They came into the kitchen, and began to dance. Perhaps it was some visceral female connection beyond my grasp, but the moment brought my grandmother’s joy to a climax. She began to laugh and clap and even dance within the confines of her chair. For that moment, she had transcended pain, and found joy.
It was only recently – ten years after my grandmother’s death – that I realized the significance of that moment, when I attempted to assess our strange relationship, where neither child nor adult understood one another. I realized that this memory of my grandmother is a sacred eulogy; a testament to joy’s mysterious, enduring power, even in the face of the deepest, most senseless pain.
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