Instructor: Jennifer Seward
Who Are You?
Who Are You?
"Nuvvevaru?" he asked. Who are you?
Those three words crushed my world. The cracked white ceiling closed in on me, and the white walls squeezed me. My ears were suddenly ringing, the distant sound of the TV muffled. Silence swept across the apartment. The humming of cars and the Indian children outside filled the space. I gripped my wrist tightly, ice cold blood running through my veins. My heart was beating too fast, pounding against my chest. Every glance at my grandfather resting on the brown couch sent an electric shock through my body, starting at my foot and zipping up my spine until it tingled on the base of my neck.
My grandfather had changed from the last time I saw him. His eyes weren't glowing with the usual mischief and happiness but were dull with skepticism and confusion. The little hair that had been left on his head was now completely colored grey. His arms and legs were full of veins, thinner than they were. His face was skinnier, his eyebrows raised unevenly. He sat still on the couch like a statue, a blanket lying on his lap and he stared at me like I was someone foreign, someone he didn't know. I remained still too, hiding behind my mother now as she greeted my grandpa. My family members stood around me like spectators waiting for the next move.
My grandfather was different. I hadn't seen him since last summer, and I was hit with the realization that he wasn't the man I could jump rope with or play hide and seek with anymore. But at least he wore his usual collared white shirt and gray pants. At least he was smiling at my mother, that shy yet sly smile that made everyone want to grin.
I pulled my eyes away from him, suddenly timid. My face grew flushed and red. I was embarrassed by the many stares trained onto me: my mother's, my sister's, my aunt's, my cousin's. My vision turned blurry, the painting in front of me contorting as I forced back my tears. Suddenly, a loud honk screamed through the alley of the apartment building, washing over the damp clothes hung on thin cords outside. My head whipped toward the source of the sour sound. but my sister and I were the only ones who noticed. The honking cars and rumbling engines were completely normal in this overpopulated city of Hyderabad, India.
I decided to take another step forward and curled my toes. My eyes met those of my mother, who was now perched elegantly on the chair next to him. I searched her expression for silent advice, for anything, but she held an unreadable expression. The cold room numbed my fingers and toes, my brain overloaded with thoughts. How do I tell him who I am? How could he forget me?
"Nuvvevaru?" he asked again, his eyes like a toddler's. Who are you?
I blinked my eyes until the twisted world around me returned to normal. A hot wave of tears threatened to roll down my cheeks; sobs demanded to rumble out of my throat. I took in deep breaths, my hands curled into fists. I couldn't do this. I couldn't pretend I could. My identity had been ripped from me as I stared at the old man who had forgotten me, the man who had fallen to the horrors of dementia, the man who was my own tatha. I didn't want to see him anymore.
Still, my grandfather sat in front of me, his face scrunched with puzzlement. I looked back in confusion, refusing to walk forward to meet my tatha. But the choice was made for me. I was pushed forward to the plush sofa by my mother, who had taken a place behind me. I met the eyes of my tatha and muttered in broken Telugu, "Nā pēru Aadhya." My name is Aadhya. Then before anyone could stop me, I dashed out of the room and to the guest bedroom, sobbing. Finally, the tears gushed down my cheeks.
I remember coming from school on a December day in Cleveland, the day when my mother told me that my grandfather was suffering from dementia. The condition meant that he was losing his memories, his thinking abilities, and other problem-solving skills. My mother had switched off the TV and held my hands as she explained it to my sister and me. She told us, "Your tatha is suffering a lot of challenges these days. He is more lonely than ever after your ammamma (grandmother) passed away." So when my mother shoved the video call into my hands a week later and mouthed for me to greet him, I expected something different. But I was met with the familiar voice of my grandfather, shouting my name joyfully. He was the same grandpa I remembered.
When I had visited India over the summers when I was little, my grandfather would relax on the leather couch and watch old black-and-white Indian TV shows. While the Indian movies played on the screen, I opened my mouth every once in a while to eat dal and roti and grumble about how I wanted to watch my favorite cartoons. Other days, I would sprawl across the couch and place my feet in my tatha's lap for him to massage them. He would ask me about my school in our mother tongue, Telugu, and I'd reply in a very hesitant voice because I wasn't very good at speaking it. But the memory that sticks with me most was when I sat with my grandfather, Indian-style on the cold cement floor next to that couch, as he counted coins from an endless pile of metal circles. My tatha used to volunteer at a tiny temple that required him to tabulate the money put into donation boxes. I would count with him, and he would let me keep some coins. One rupee. Two rupees. Three rupees. It was with those coins I started my first ever coin collection.
Now, as I curled up in a tiny ball in the bed in the guest bedroom, I realized I could never make those kinds of memories again. That thought, my grandfather's clueless expression, and the troubles of the pandemic overwhelmed me. It was as if I were in a snow globe, being shaken up and down, and I couldn't ever stop it. All the video calls to my grandfather, all the summer and winter visits to India, all the candies and goodies we brought him, all the day and night time helpers who assisted him, none of them could help him. Or so I thought as I wept in the hopeless little baby blue guest bedroom of the five-level apartment building.
After a while, I walked out of the room, hoping no one could see my swollen eyes and red cheeks, evidence of my secret crying session. Then suddenly, I felt warm arms circle around me, and a chin rest on my hair. I buried my head in my mother's shirt, keeping my tears at bay. I wasn't going to cry again. I wasn't here to cry. I was here to help. Reluctantly pulling myself away from the comforting warmth of my mother, I let out a deep breath and walked to that same couch where everything started. My grandfather sat there alone and empty. The words spilled out of my mouth, "Hi tatha, Nā pēru Aadhya." I wrapped my arms around his and hugged him tightly.
Things had changed, my tatha had changed. When my grandmother passed away, he felt the agony of the loss of the person he'd loved most. When he forgot the house he was sleeping in was his own, he felt terrified and scared. When his memories slowly started to drift away, he felt helpless. Every day, my grandfather sits on that very same couch where I had made so many happy memories, where he waits for his wife to come home, although she won't ever. I'd like to think that a part of him is waiting for me to return, too, so we can sit together, laugh together, or just savor the moments of happiness together. Yes, our lives have changed greatly. and there will be no going back. But I also know if he ever again asks who I am, I can always tell him my name is Aadhya, and I'm proud to be his granddaughter.