My grandmother is one of the great loves of my life.
It’s a child-like love that is reckless and without boundary.
As a kid, I always knew that my grandmother – Nani – loved me. While I offered cuddles, Nani offered chores. I think of it as army-style affection. You know… The cold and commanding drill sergeants that scream at soldiers? All that, “Sir, yes sir”, “Sir, no sir” or “Sir, how many push-ups sir?” They’re rude and boorish, but provide the troops with the survival skills they need to stay alive. It may not be love with the army guys, but you see the caring in their actions, right? Despite her rigid rules, Nani always injected frequent doses of a special something that reassured me of her love.
I know this seems like a strange comparison, but it is accurate with respect to my Nani. Let me illustrate her toughness a little better. I refused to use public restrooms and was cripplingly shy as a kid. One day, these two social anxieties joined forces in the worst possible way. Unable to control my functions, I released a stinky brown load in my pants while seated in my classroom (don’t judge, I was four years old). It was the end of the school day, so I was met by my Nani who walked me home each day. On this day, she sensed (sniffed?) something awry. It was not long before she dragged me home and had me standing in the bathtub, while she scrubbed and scolded me for my act of disobedience.
What a dirty thing to do?
Wait until I tell your mother!
Is this how you behave at school?
Aren’t you ashamed of yourself?
Trust me, her barrage of insults were like the greatest hits of “How not to raise a child”. But you know what? She was cleaning shit off my bum. Shit. Off. My. Bum. So if she had a few harsh words, so be it. That night she held me tight and stroked the hair on my head until I fell asleep, that night like every night. She didn’t say it, but that was love. And even as a kid, I felt it.
Tough as nails with visible traces of affection? I guess that was my Nani. Flash forward to present day and it’s Nani whose bottom needs tending. She has dementia, an insidious mental illness has robbed her of many memories. However, the condition has given rise to a softer, almost child-like affection in her. Love spills from Nani’s words, warm embrace and innocent stares. Funny how it took an illness to expose her heart. Or maybe it was her illness that exposed mine? Sometimes when I change her diapers I think about how angry she was when I lost control of my bodily functions. Other times, the sight and smell of shit makes me just as angry (and just as vocal) as she was that day. It’s easy to lose your temper. Her repetitive questions are maddening. The noisy, sleepless nights will make anyone cranky. And the shit. It is everywhere. It’s a problem when it doesn’t happen. It’s a problem when it does happen. It’s in her fingers, caked into diapers and even escaping into the air to plug up my noise. Shit is permanently etched into the mind. Funny how our roles have reversed.
One night, while I manicured Nani’s nails, I considered our relationship. Yes, her condition poses many challenges, but it has ushered in a return to child-like affection. Love is no longer an abstract idea in her presence. It is honest, endless and unspoiled, just as we see it in children. As I placed her hands flat on a white terry towel and cleaned up after my Nani I felt privileged. Privileged to show her the same affection that I received from her as a child. I stroked her hands gently and felt the softness of her increasingly delicate skin. I watched her wrinkled wrists squirm around as I soaked her hands in warm water. I started to sing a familiar tune to draw her attention away from her fidgeting. Nani filled in the banks and hummed along. With her cuticles cleaned, I wiped away the hardened feces lining the cracks and edges of her fingers. She smiled at me gently – pleased by my services, but probably not fully aware that it was a task she could no longer complete on her own. My heart feels so full when I catch myself in the present, fully appreciating every moment with my Nani. Filled with childish play, but without a child in sight, these moments are good moments.
Shelly Buliani is a native of Vancouver, Canada. Having worked as a researcher for most of her career, Shelly’s observant and analytical nature is finding a creative outlet in her writing these days. Her work is focused on travel, food, society and her feisty 105 year old grandmother who lives with dementia.
Shelly can be found on her blog and Twitter.
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