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Brendon Holder's grandmother using a colouring book - something we gave her to keep her engaged when her memory started fading as she loved creating things.Courtesy of family

Brendon Holder is Norma Patrick’s oldest grandson and a writer from Toronto.

I cannot immediately recall the last time I saw my grandmother, but when I think of her the first image my brain summons is of her hands.

In my mind, she has plump, full fingers crowned with glassy yet unpainted nail beds that, despite their unassuming appearance, could pinch the fat of your thigh for misbehaving. Her hands were soft and sheeny, as if her skin’s pores were woven together by thin, invisible silk threads, and I remember thinking that she must have spent ages before bed rubbing cocoa butter into them the same way she would rub lotion into my ashy, knobby knees. She had the most beautiful hands, a colour between a nutmeg-y turmeric and summer peach. Hands that would cinnamon the yams for Sunday dinner. Hands that would hold yours softly as she spoke to you, looking deep into the wells of your irises. Hands that would produce the most intricate, bespoke crafts and arts that would decorate the walls of her home.

It was my grandma who first sparked my interest in art, taking me to musicals, movies at the town centre and museums when I would visit. She taught me to imagine, to dream a world of my own possibilities, and she would tell her friends from church that I was her “artsy grandson” when they asked what sports I played. It felt as though I had my own defined place in society because my grandmother with the soft hands said so.

That was when she still remembered. Over the past couple of years, I watched as her memory and speech evaporated like boiling water in a tea kettle. I observed as her talkative, boisterous husband filled the air where her rosy voice once hung. And when her hands stopped creating the art that decorated her walls, our walls, all that I had left was her face. A fairer, flesh-filled face in contrast to my tinted mahogany, angular variety. Her face and lips were full in a way that looked different from my father’s, except for her signature bright, slightly gapped smile that she passed onto him. I always wondered what it would have been like for him as a child in Barbados, living in a home with a mother he didn’t resemble, with a half brother and step father who looked nothing like him – the darkest knight.

As my grandmother’s memory slackened, so did her ability to recall who I was. This I was somewhat prepared for. I was frequently travelling for work at the time, only seeing her a couple times a year, and although it saddened me, I knew my rank on the bizarre totem pole of memory. I accepted my fate as my role of eldest grandson diminished in her mind. The mind that once helped carve my own place in the world. What I could not accept, however, was when she began misplacing my father’s face. Both nonsensically and embarrassingly, I felt almost betrayed by my grandmother for forgetting her first son and, secretly, wept the tears I knew my father would not.

An older photo, the feisty grandmother I like to remember, putting up bunny ears behind my headCourtesy of family

Soon, the grandma that I knew – feisty, comical and a tad cheeky – began to fade like an old oil painting. As she sat on the couch that I had fallen asleep on so many times before, I watched those I loved care for her, manage her medication, agonize over what she was fed. I was so accustomed to seeing my grandmother care for everyone else that it seemed like a glitch in the system rather than the consequence of time. Although her hands were less busy, the hands of the clock’s pace proved not to pause.

Time pressed on. I did not want to accept this truth even though it was right before my eyes. So I resigned to look the other way for fear of clouding my perception of her in my mind: My grandmother with the softest hands. At Christmas dinners, I’d excuse myself from the table first, unable to witness what was happening to her. I would flinch and distract myself with my phone as she lost her train of thought mid-speech. I’d privately grieve for my parents and grandfather, but I was utterly no help at all.

Then the virus hit. Businesses closed, grocery shelves cleared and large family gatherings halted. As a 20-something living in a large city, I knew that I was one of the highest risk demographics to come in contact with the virus. I was uninvited to annual family events that continued with a tighter guest list or stopped altogether. I no longer enjoyed my grandfather’s flying fish, my father’s macaroni pie and my mother’s oxtail in their company but virtually as my loving parents dropped off care packages. It pained me to be away from family, especially during the hardest summer of my life, in the relentless heat of the Black Lives Matter movement. I recall breaking down, wanting to see my parents so dearly, but couldn’t shake the fear of infecting them.

Despite the longing I had to see my parents, I felt an unexpected, ill-favoured surge of relief: I did not have to see my grandmother. Her condition was too fragile, and mine too prone to risk, to justify a visit. With this realization, I could continue to “look the other way” less explicitly and not confront the realities of her illness. I felt a deserved guilt and mentally bartered with the idea that the distance that protected her from me also protected my recollection of her. Memories, accurate or not, are also fragile and, in a period where I felt my most fragile yet, I chose ignorance and suspended the idea of her just a bit longer. Of course, what I was justifying was cowardice, rationalizing an effort to hang onto a sliver of peace of mind in a year of incessant dread.

In the new year, I am expected to move to an even riskier, larger city, painting the reality that this holiday could be my last opportunity to see my grandmother. With winter approaching, I made the decision to see her and prepared myself from an emotional and health perspective. After a COVID-19 test, I returned home to my family, planning to accompany my dad on one of his near daily trips to visit her. But time pressed on again, proving to be faster than I was, and unfortunately she passed last weekend, before I could see her once more.

Now, when I think of my grandmother I try to remember her in her entirety – even the parts that were unrecognizable in the end. At home, I listen as the house fills with voices of relatives through the cracks of the phone, offering condolences and their own memories of her to add to mine. I roam the halls I used to sprint through as a child, walls adorned with pictures of her beloved family – all of us her most prized works of art, built strong by her hands. Hands that nursed, hands that raised, hands that loved. And hands that held your own, softly, on cold days like today.

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