Ten years ago today, an adventure (of sorts) began.
I’ve never really spoken about that trip as I’ve found it an uncomfortable — and somewhat painful — subject.
My grandmother, as some know, suffered from dementia in her final years. At the time of this trip, her doctor had given her six months to live. She would live, instead, for another six years.
We stopped in Richmond for dinner. We had been on the road for five hours at that point (summer traffic was terrible), and I had to feed her. We stopped at the Aunt Sarah’s Pancake House on Broad Street. At the time there were two on Broad Street; there was one closer to the city (and this one is still open), and one further out on Broad Street, closer to the University of Richmond campus.
My grandmother thought Broad Street was Reisterstown Road. She thought she was still near Baltimore.
Our waiter was a young man named Nick. Somehow, in conversation, my grandmother brought up her belief that she was in her favorite restaurant on Reisterstown Road, and it came up that Nick, too, was from Baltimore. Thankfully, he said nothing to puncture her illusion that she was in the Baltimore environs. I genuinely don’t know what would have happened at that point if he had. Nothing good, I’m sure of it. She truly believed she and I were driving around Baltimore, and I would learn in the six years to come that she handled poorly any time reality intruded on her fantasy.
There was nothing about the dinner that was memorable. I had a pancake platter of some sort, probably the Banana Nut pancakes. My grandmother had something with mashed potatoes and green beans, and she didn’t eat much of it. The bill came to about twenty dollars. I left forty on the table, thanks to Nick for not demolishing my grandmother’s illusion.
Dinner finished, we set out again on the road.
Once we crossed the James she snapped out of her fantasy. There were signs along the highway that read Rocky Mount. She had grown up in Rocky Mount, North Carolina, and she knew from decades of life that Rocky Mount was nowhere near Baltimore.
She had chattered inanely for the first five hours of our trip. Those final three hours, from the time she snapped out of her fantasy and demanded that I take her back to Baltimore (to which I said, curtly, that I wouldn’t) until the moment I pulled into the driveway in Raleigh, she said nothing at all. We drove on in silence. The radio wasn’t even on.
I didn’t realize that day how much my life would change. No one ever does; it’s only when one’s life has changed and headed off in a different direction that it’s apparent what’s happened. Things were in motion that year — EB Games had been bought by GameStop (though those changes wouldn’t fully go into effect until early 2006), a job at EB I’d applied for (and a career path that really interested me) evaporated as a result of the buy-out, my grandmother came to Raleigh, I wrote “Make-Believe.” The big change, in my honest estimation, was my grandmother, as I would end up leaving Raleigh altogether and moving to Baltimore to help my parents take care of her. I didn’t expect to stay in Baltimore six months, yet here I am still nine years later; my parents moved away and I stayed for a job that I’m good at and generally enjoy, though it does wear me down.
I know there were good moments and happy moments in those final years with her. The moments that come to mind, though, are often strange and surreal and frustrating and sad. My feelings remain complicated, I’m not always sure that I liked her, I can’t dismiss the thought that there should have been another way, and yet there are times that I miss her.
I would encounter Nick once more. In November of 2005, I traveled up to Baltimore to check the pilot light on the gas furnace in my grandmother’s house. On the trip back, I stopped again at Aunt Sarah’s, and Nick was again my server. I was tired, and in a faraway voice I said to him, before he could introduce himself, “Your name is Nick, you’re from Baltimore, and you’ve worked here for several months at least.”
“Yes,” he said, taken somewhat aback. “How did you know that?” He probably thought the worst, that he had waited on me and given me bad service.
“You were kind to my grandmother,” I said quietly. “We were traveling, we stopped here for dinner. You talked to her. You were kind to her.”
“Oh,” he said. His sense of relief was palpable. He smiled and took my order. Probably a pancake platter. Probably the Banana Nut pancakes.
There were Saturdays where my parents would go away — to craft fairs, to wineries, to whatnot. I would sometimes go down to the McDonald’s down the street and order two plain cheeseburgers to go. I would eat one, my grandmother would eat the other. No, she would demolish the cheeseburger while watching a television show she could barely follow. I’d hide the wrappers when she was done. Saturday cheeseburgers, that was our little secret.
There. A happy memory, one that came about because, ten years ago today, my grandmother and I took a trip from Baltimore to Raleigh.