When None of the Power is Yours

January 28th, 2008

oldhands1.jpgI didn’t know my Nana Hlatky very well. She lived in Conneticut, on the other side of the coast, and only came to visit every few years. Still, I felt a connection with her, far more than my sisters did. They couldn’t decipher her accent as well as I could, and none of them had either my curiosity or my rock solid determination.

I knew she had stories to tell, and I wanted to hear them. What was the hole in her chest? What happened to the farm in the Ukraine? Was she really on a train for 40 days before being sent to a work camp? How did she escape, where were her parents, how did she get to America?

Nana wasn’t big on talking, and I don’t know if that was her nature, or the circumstance of being in a different kitchen. Nana hardly ever left the kitchen when she visited – she was usually cooking or baking something, and when she wasn’t, she seemed to feel most at home at the kitchen table, sipping coffee.

I’m sure, too, that she thought I was the weirdest granddaughter ever, and a real shkidnyk – a total pest. But I adored her – all 4′11″ of her, with her serious green eyes, work-weary hands, knee high nylons, and soft red lipstick. I loved to watch those hands as they folded pierogies into perfect half-moon shapes, or mounds of fluffy dough into loaves of sweet bread.

Years later, when she came to live with us, those same hands would hold a butter knife in preparation for the danger that was coming through the door or sleeping on the couch. I would watch those hands wring as Nana begged to speak to the manager of this hotel. Those serious green eyes turned anxious and afraid, and were often filled with tears of confusion and frustration. My parents did not help. They harmed in ways that are still too painful to talk about. It was a terrible, brutal, heart-scathing thing to watch. My Nana. 4′11″. Some things are just not forgivable, and I will never forgive them.

I did the best I could at 15 years old, but what’s the best when none of the power is yours? I put in urgent, confidential calls to social services from payphones, and waited. In the interim, I bathed Nana, I talked to her, I tried to show her love, but as soon as she remembered my name, she forgot it. As soon as trust was established, it was broken. I was a stranger, I was a girl on the train, I was the maid who stole her purse.

Eventually, Nana was put in a long-term treatment facility, an “old folks home”, where she all but ceased to exist as a human being. She became a tiny, curled up shell, voiceless, with no spark of life left behind her clouded eyes. Her physical death took several years, but I prefer to imagine that her soul went first – to her brightest and kindest version of Heaven, where tragedies would be forgotten and love would be resurrected.

I thought of my Nana today when I read an article about a promising new experimental treatment for Alzheimer’s Disease. Bathing the brain in infrared light is thought to spur the growth of new brain cells and may, researchers hope, actually reverse memory loss, which would make it a groundbreaking discovery for hundreds of thousands of Alzheimer’s sufferers worldwide. The experiments worked on mice, but the first human trials will begin this summer.

After seeing the horrific powerlessness of Alzheimer’s firsthand, I have lived with the fear that my mind might go before my body. It’s a dreadful fear, particularly for me, since I already have a mind that’s prone to wandering off, or taking long daydream journeys. I wonder, really, how far of a leap it would be to go from merely wandering to getting irretrievably lost. I’d guess not far, and that’s frightening. So, like millions of others who share my concerns, I watch for new treatments, get excited by every advance made, and anxiously wait for the day a cure is found.

“Nana, do you think I’m pretty?”
“Vhat’s perrty to do in life? You tink perrty is important? Pffft. Be good, be schmart. Tat’s da perrty tat matters.”

She was, of course, very beautiful.

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