Over the Falls in a Barrel



East Village, New York, NY, 10009

Neighborhood: East Village

“Now, you know, when I was a young girl, before your Granddad came along, I lived in Chicago. And boy was that an experience.”

My grandmother takes a sip off her still steaming coffee; black the only way she’ll take it. “It was a grand time. So much energy, so lively. And then we moved to Wichita, Kansas and I thought, gosh, what a bore.” She kind of giggles.

I’ve heard this story before. But still, I listen intently, watching as she shifts the couch pillow nestled behind her. “Oh we had a ball. There was so much to do and see all the time. I imagine that’s what New York is like for you. Why you like it, I mean.”

“I think that is why I like it Granny. It suits me,” I say.

“Now, your Granddad and I went to New York once before. We drove from Flushing Meadows to Niagara Falls. What a beautiful sight that was. All that rushing water. Amazing.” Her smile widens, adding a few more creases to her already wrinkled face, and her eyes come to life with a life I know well.

Granddad enters the room, interrupting her train of thought. They are both visiting from Colorado on the occasion of their 60th wedding anniversary. It is my first time with them since relocating to New York City. Granddad takes a seat in the creaky recliner and tips back his iced tea.

“Oh, Bokle. How are you? New York, huh? I can’t figure out why anyone would want to live with all these people.”

Granny resettles herself on the couch, listening to Granddad probe me about the city, how I am getting along, that sort of thing. The discussion finally finds a natural pause.

“Now, you know, when I was a young girl, before your Granddad came along, I lived in Chicago. And boy was that an experience.”

She goes on, just as before. I smile the same and engage her dialog. She giggles again, in exactly the same place in the story, and continues.

My mother had mentioned that Granny’s Alzheimer’s’ was getting noticeably worse, but this is the first time I’ve witnessed it. It seems harmless enough. She is simply repeating herself a bit. But I still find it troubling. We continue to talk, covering the same ground. I try to move her onto a different subject.

“Now Granny, you two are coming up on a big anniversary right?”

“Oh yes, dear. Can you believe that? I sure can’t. I don’t know what I’d have done without this old bugger all these years.” Granddad offers a smirk. He’s certainly heard this one before.

“Oh, Anne. No one wants to hear you go on and on. Let’s hear from the boy about his big city life.”

This stops her short but she smiles gracefully. I quickly jump in with a story about my small apartment and the subway ride I take every morning.

“Now, you know, when I was a young girl, before your Granddad came along. I lived in Chicago. And boy was that an experience.”

My granddad sighs and pulls himself up, perching on the edge of the recliner. He looks on silently.

It fascinates me on some level, the way she recounts the story verbatim. Literally word for word—inflection for inflection. It is eerie. Her thoughts somehow hit a bump and the needle skips back, catching an earlier groove. So very strange. There is certainly some synapse jumping upheaval going on in the mystery of her brain.

My Granddad makes the chair creak wildly as he pushes against the weathered arms and rises to walk away. Granny reaches the part about Niagara Falls again. Gleaming, her soft, round, playful eyes can still pull me in, past the aging exterior to the sweet, wonderful person inside.

“What a beautiful sight that was. All that rushing water. Amazing.” I let her continue, enjoying the lilt in her voice as she replays the story of the Falls. I go there with her.

The great, uncontrollable flow of the river surges past me as I listen. Ever gaining speed and volume, it races toward the formidable precipice and the inconceivable plunge towards crashing waters. Having been there myself I know its power and beauty and ever present danger.

She pushes on as well, unmindful of the illness that’s carrying her away and the sorrow that it brings to me. Like a thrill-seeker in a barrel, she bobs along on the rapids, unable to see her own fate, encapsulated, insulated from the devastating roar of nature, but swept ever faster toward an unknown, tragic fall, while the rest of us look on in horror.

I want to be in there with her. To join her in the darkness and shatter the loneliness she must surely feel. To breach the maze of her mind and lead her out. I want for that badly. To pluck her from the current. But I can only watch. I can’t imagine the fear and confusion she must feel, blind to the danger ahead but surely aware of the ride. Surely, on some level, cognizant of the somersaulting uncertainty.

Mom enters from the kitchen where she has been within earshot of the conversation. She gives me a subtle, knowing smile and joins us, making the recliner creak again. This is one of Granny’s good days, she will tell me later. On those other days, she says, a profound and scary confusion can force its way in and transform a simple talk into a bewildering scene. Granny will truly lose herself in a memory and not be able to distinguish between it and her current surroundings. She will very lucidly recount a day in 1977 like it was last week, but then go on to make you realize that in her mind, it was. And now, for that moment, she believes she is back in McCalester, Oklahoma or Pueblo, Colorado, instead of the reality she is currently living. Her mind somehow transcends time and space. It takes some real guidance to get her back to the present.

Like the great horseshoe of Niagara her mind is swiftly swallowing up memories. Pulling them down the sheer drop into a violent foam of confusion that sends a maelstrom of yesterdays on a collision coarse with an ever fading number of tomorrows.

The sadness of her inevitable and inescapable downfall has real weight. Only lightened by the fact that she is, quite simply, happy in her moment. Even if that same moment has been lived several times already in a half hour span.

I wonder what triggers the jump, sending her mind back through the moment, but I can never really know. It does not seem to have logic or structure. Just a random dip in the flow of the torrent as it surges onward. I share a glance with Mom before settling in myself. I listen on and wait, ready for Granny’s eyes to light up once again when she remembers the Falls.

“Now, you know, when I was a young girl, before your Granddad came along, I lived in Chicago. And boy was that an experience.”

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