“You were the BEST baby,” Emmy says wistfully, gazing up at the muted TV screen. “And you LOVED to eat.”
She turns to look at me fondly, seeing not her adult granddaughter, but the infant who didn't give her any trouble decades ago when my parents went on vacation to Alaska.
My grandmother, Emmy, is 85 years old, and wearing bejeweled slipper-shoes. She has a sharp mind, a ready grin, and the most fashionable collection of sweater-coats of anyone I’ve ever met.
Three months ago, she was given six months to live. The cancer has migrated from her breast to her spine to her liver, and she has refused further treatment. They say she won’t experience any pain; she’ll just get more and more tired.
Emmy has stopped playing bridge. She does not want to see the ocean. She does not want us to know that she has taken to napping in the middle of the day.
The story of my stay at her house is one of a few that she tells me, in her Dutch accent, every time I see her. I think it’s her way of reminding us both that she knows me, when in fact, she doesn’t really know me at all.
My grandmother can be charming and funny, and she always seems happy to see me and sad to see me go. But she also can't escape the destructive stories she has running, on an endless loop, in her head.
Emmy believes that she was gypped, dealt a rotten hand: that her childhood was stolen by the Second World War; that she never should have left Holland or married my grandfather; that she did everything for her children, who in return continue to disappoint her, even as she is dying.
When I ask if she remembers the enormous cookies, the size of my face, that Grandpa would bring us when he worked at the bakery, she looks at me incredulously.
“My husband? No,” she declares, turning back to the television, as though this little act of kindness could not have belonged to the man she knew and resented.
To the other residents of Pocassett Bay, Emmy appears to be the most fortunate woman around. She is widely regarded as the best-dressed and the youngest-looking, with four happily married children who see to her every need and a baker’s dozen healthy grandkids who take turns coming to visit, to take her for lunch, or to simply sit with her outside while she smokes a cigarette.
Everyone agrees that Emmy has much to be grateful for – except Emmy herself.
There has been much struggle in my family to get her to see things she simply refuses to see. After 85 years, it’s too late for her to change the story she has always sought to confirm: disillusion, resentment, illness, martyrdom.
Two generations removed, I have mostly escaped her realm of personal disappointment. But because that’s the world she knows and lives in, she doesn’t really know how to talk to me. She likes me because I am cheerful, because I listen, because I call her sometimes.
But the sad fact is that I am foreign to her; she has no idea who I am. And not because her mind is going, but because I’ve never managed to tell her a single story from my life that’s more than a fleeting reflection of what she has just said. If I try, she will simply talk over me.
So instead, I remind her of the chocolate-sprinkle-and-butter-on-white-bread sandwiches she used to make for my brother and me when we were small, served with a cup of sweet and creamy instant coffee, like the one I'm nursing now.
There: that grin, the joy of shared memory.
I tell her, not for the first time, that when I went to visit a friend in the Netherlands, I opened a kitchen cupboard in the house she shared with a dozen Dutch people and discovered a half-gallon container of chocolate sprinkles.
She laughs. I think: This might be the last time I see her.
I ask if she has been reflecting on her life since her diagnosis. She says no.
I ask if there is anything she wants to do or see. She says no.
I ask if she has any life advice for me. She says no.
Then, abruptly, she changes her mind:
“Just be happy," she says with force. "And keep being yourself.”