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My Nana Doesn't Know Who I Am Anymore

Photograph by Denise Cortes

My nana, my paternal grandmother, is approaching 90 years old. She is as tiny and delicate as a bird. Her skin is a deep brown and etched with many years of life. You can clearly see her indigenous roots. I'm her first grandchild, so I'm kind of a big deal. I've had the pleasure of being loved and spoiled by her for many years.

"Hi, Nana! You look so cute today. How are you feeling?" I say to her, with a smile on my face. She will say hello in response but she'll also look at me wearily, with vague suspicion. Nana is there, but she's not there. Dementia has crept in ever so slowly over the years. I see her look at me, studying me as if she's trying really hard to remember, but she can't.

Truth is, my nana doesn't know who I am anymore.

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My nana has always been a constant in my life. I spent many summers and holiday vacations with her in East L.A., riding around the barrio in a pale blue Ford Pinto. I can still smell the vinyl interior as we drove to the local fabric store. My brother and I spent many an afternoon flipping through catalogs and running through bolts of flowy fabric.

After my parents divorced, her home was a safe haven, a place of stability. I may not have known what my dad's life was like as a newly single man, but I knew I could count on Nana to welcome us to her home where she would make us comforting, delicious refried beans and let us play in the backyard as she trimmed her beloved rose bushes. Summer days consisted of me sitting at her feet as she chain-smoked Pall Malls while she watched "One Life to Live," "General Hospital" and "The Young and the Restless." She still loved my mother even though my father wasn't married to her anymore, and that meant so much to me as a little girl.

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When I was in college, I moved in with Nana for five years. She was always accepting of me, regardless of the crazy stuff I did — like come home with a pierced eyebrow, stumbling in the door at four in the morning reeking of pot and alcohol, staying up all hours of the night as I worked on some elaborate art project. She was always calm, distinctly sweet, observing me and my life as she sat in the living room crocheting one of her many blankets. I always felt her love.

When I think about the fact that she doesn't know who I am anymore, it's like a punch in the gut. She doesn't remember any of those things in our relationship that I do, the things that keeps my heart strings tied to hers. It's bittersweet, but I know she has a lifetime of love and memories of me locked inside her heart and that has to be enough. November is Alzheimer's Awareness Month, and Nana will be on my mind all month long and beyond. My memories of her will be forever woven into my heart and mind, even if she can no longer recall them. And even if I can't make her remember by repeating our stories, it soothes me to jog my own memory of all our good times together.

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