To a grandmother with Alzheimer’s: ‘Perhaps slowly forgetting me is good for you’

Tiffany Wang tells her grandmother, who lives in China, that she visits every year to dance for her. “Having to smile knowing that you have forgotten me feels like my heart is being scratched with a knife.”

When COVID-19 began claiming lives in elderly homes across the country, I thought of you. Despite health authorities cautioning against international travel, I still had faith that I could visit you in China this year.

Laolao, I miss a lot about you: your familiar smirk, which would appear every time I bragged about my latest academic achievement; your homemade shrimp and chive dumplings; leaning on your soft shoulder, even though I am so much taller than you are. I’m alone in a condo in downtown Toronto to complete a master’s in criminology. Solitude makes our memories more vivid.

One of the memories I will never forget is when I left you at the Beijing airport in 2005, after I gave you a final hug and felt the warmth lingering from your round arms caressing my tiny figure. I turned my back on you, my right hand grasping my luggage and my left in Mom’s. I looked back once more before the security gates blocked your face. I saw a tear falling down your cheek.

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This memory sometimes surfaces late at night. I often question whether leaving China for Canada was too cruel for you. For my future, I broke your heart. In 2005, I was only six years old. Now, I am 21. The experiences that come with age have revealed to me what your tear meant that day at the airport: you knew that our goodbye was a real one; that from then on, I would not return to you. For you, it was really letting go.

Laolao, this letter is more for me than it is for you. You cannot even understand English, and I would not have the courage to translate it for you. Besides, so much would be lost in translation. This letter is a way for me to commemorate you. You are getting older every day and you have trouble hearing me on the phone. These days, you don’t even remember the past.

In high school, I wrote a paper on Alzheimer’s. I never expected that you would get it, but fate likes to play games. Perhaps slowly forgetting me is good for you; you will not remember the painful memory of me leaving for Canada.

Now, our roles have been reversed. You no longer remember, and it’s my turn to bear the pain. I hope you still know that I come back to China almost every year to visit you. I was looking forward to seeing you this spring, but COVID-19 extinguished that hope.

Although I need to introduce myself to you multiple times every day when we’re together, I am still happy just to see your face and feel your familiar presence—your scent, touch and aura feel like home.

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And every time I come back, I dance for you. If you could see that the little ballerina who started dancing at three has now blossomed into a swan, that would be enough. I still remember you accompanying me to dance studios every week and attending every performance. That little girl who slowly gained enough flexibility to do the splits, the courage to leap, the momentum to conduct front and back walkovers, and the patience to dance in pointe shoes, has become a young woman.

One of the reasons Mom signed me up for ballet at such a young age is because of your love of dance and music. Before Alzheimer’s, you would comment on how much I improved after each lesson. Now, you simply enjoy the performance without any understanding of who the dancer is. That hurts.

I’ve realized that performing is lonely. I spend a long time perfecting every movement, and in the process, I inevitably become the character I am trying to portray. Once I step onto the stage, the role no longer belongs to me. The audience never sees the real person beneath.

Laolao, dancing for you is even more painful. During regular performances, I don’t know the audience. But I know you: having to smile knowing that you have forgotten me feels like my heart is being scratched with a knife.

The saddest thing in the world is not life and death. It is watching you, the one I love the most, look at me while knowing that you can’t see the real person beneath.

But through dance, I love you and honour our bond.

This article appears in print in the September 2020 issue of Maclean’s magazine with the headline, “Dear Laolao…” Subscribe to the monthly print magazine here.

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