"What's your name?," I asked.
"Hailie," she said, with gusto.
"And how old are you?"
"I'm eight. I'm in second grade."
"You doing well in school," I continued. "What subjects do you like?"
"Of course," she said. "And I like English and math."
I don't often connect with young children. Ten and up and able to understand the finer points of executing the wheel play on a baseball field and I'm good. Young ones not so much. But my cousin Hailie and I hit it off and spent much of the day laughing together. She knew she had my number, especially when I asked her for one good reason that I should stop spinning her around and set her down. I asked her for the magic word, naturally expecting to hear offer up a "Please."
"Chris is awesome!," she said, making me laugh so hard I nearly dropped her.
I managed to set her down gently and then turned my attention back to the woman I had traveled 1,100 miles for one day to see -- my 97-year-old maternal grandmother, Myrl. My first hours with grandma had been about as rough as I expected. I had not seen her in more than a decade, her in Minnesota and me in Atlanta until last year. I saw her a lot when I was growing up, though -- first in St. Paul, where I lived from birth to about the age of 3, and then on road trips. She and my grandpa had later moved to Picayune, Mississippi.
I began bracing myself for the trip long before my plane left the ground for the family reunion. I knew her mind was fading; I had spent enough time around the elderly to know there was a good chance she wouldn't recognize me. My Alzheimer's' stricken paternal grandmother didn't know me the last time I saw her, and I've done volunteer work with other folks whose wires no longer connect.
Still, I wanted to show my love and support for a woman whose face used to light up every time she saw me ... a woman who had done so much for so many in her lifetime. (My uncle said she'd some times walk a very long way home after working a late shift at a restaurant so she could save 15 cents on bus fare, then get up and take him, my aunt and my mom on a bus to a pool hours later.) I even allowed myself the faintest hope that I might spark one glimmer of recognition in her eyes, that I could have my grandma back for even a moment That hope dimmed when my mother, aunt and uncle arrived at her assisted living center. She knew them, getting their names right on the first shot.
But she just couldn't make me out.
"Who is this man?," she asked. "He's good looking!"
We all laughed.
"You got the most important part right, Grandma," I said with a smile. "I'm Christopher, your grandson. Diane's son."
Nothing registered but she tried all day long on Saturday to figure me out. It didn't matter to her that she couldn't place a lot of other folks but I could see it bothered her that she couldn't make me out. She couldn't remember taking care of me every day when I was little and my parents were working. Couldn't remember taking me to the hospital when I felt the need for speed on my tricycle and busted my chin: Even my still-visible scar didn't ring a bell.
I didn't take it personally; you can't allow yourself to get rattled around people in that condition. You just have to maintain a happy, loving spirit and convey with your soul what words no longer allow you to express. I tapped into that understanding most heavily when we pulled into the reunion an hour later.
Others were afraid to try to lift my wheelchair bound grandmother out of the car like the man had taught us at the home, but I knew I could do it. I leaned in and tried to put her hands around my shoulders and neck.
She was terrified.
"No!," she screamed, trying to pull back. "Don't touch me, sir. Who are you, who is this man? Please don't touch me!"
She couldn't put up much of a fight and I tried my best to soothe her fears as I bear hugged her and lifted her out of the car and into her chair.
I kept all my sad thoughts, and the darkness they lent themselves to, out of my mind -- mostly. As hard as it was on me, I knew that seeing grandma like that was a lot harder on her children. I feared there would come a day when I might have to care for my parents the same way, and that they might not recognize me, either.
"But who is that man?," Grandma would ask as if on cue to lighten the mood. "He's good looking!"
Then Hailie would come by and plop herself in my lap, or leave me no choice but to give her my famed "Big Brother Belly Buster" that I used to give my kid brothers at that age. One adult cousin sang for us. Another told jokes. We wolfed down some barbecue. I revisited old times with relatives I had maintained a relationship with, and greeted a great many people I was meeting for the first time.
The sun went down and the reunion drew to a close. Hailie cried when we said goodbye and said she wished we could keep hanging out. Me too, sweetheart, I said. I promised her I'd send her an e-mail soon (she told me she had an address and I could write her) and threw her on my shoulders for a ride to her car. She was heading back to Texas.
I had to get to the airport the next day. My mom, stepfather, uncle, aunt and I went to see grandma on the way.
Grandma resumed the previous day's query with me, continuing to break my mom's heart.
A moment later, something flickered in my grandmother's eyes.
"Christopher?," she asked, hesitantly.
"Yes!," we all said. Her face lit up like a kid at Christmas and she put her arms out so I could slide between them for a hug. She kissed me on the cheek and pressed with her little might on my shoulders.
"I love you, grandma," I said.
We all made small talk and then said our farewells. She said goodbye to each of her children by name, then turned to me.
"Who is this man?", she asked. "He's good looking."