“Don’t worry, Gran. We’ll get you back,” my sister said as the doctor reviewed the medical records. We hardly recognized the woman who had come to live with us. Her once-tailored clothes sagged on her petite frame, making her recent 15-pound weight loss look even greater. The elder care specialist assured us that Gran’s weight loss and confusion should improve, as long as we make sure she takes her medicine and eats regularly. Gran’s eyes told another story. Their sunken appearance had relented to the intravenous fluids and scheduled meals she received in the hospital, but a more ominous, bewildered gaze replaced it. And her mouth refused to contribute any words to the narrative.
Gran had been in our house for a month and still hadn’t uttered a single word. Her lifelong chatty disposition exchanged for silent confusion. Her disconnection epitomized in a cold, blank stare. It seemed nothing could break it.
We digitally restored a tattered and discolored photo of us, her only grandchildren, visiting her on her tour bus. Her response was a blank stare.
We cooked her favorite red beans and rice for three painstaking hours, just like she’d taught us. The heartwarming smell of the creamy sauce lingered in the summer air and wafted as far as the driveway. It was all lost on Gran. Her response was the same blank stare.
My once vibrant grandmother was gone, but her stare wasn’t totally unfamiliar. I’d seen the same look on Gran’s face 10 years ago when I was sixteen, after she broke her leg coming down from the stage. She postponed the remainder of her nationwide tour for two months while she recuperated at our house. Nothing could have been worse for my teenaged angst than sharing a bedroom with an opinionated gospel singer. Gran had earned a reputation as our family’s taskmaster with as much diligence as she had earned her international singing awards. She was the sun around which our family rotated. I braced for her incessant talking and imposing reflections about my wardrobe and room decor. But my preparation was useless. Gran refused to talk. I could only judge her mood by the songs she sang—at full volume, regardless of the time. When she first arrived, the slow, mournful spirituals she belted in the middle of the night unnerved me so much I had nightmares. But as she healed, her bedside choral expressions transitioned to upbeat, a cappella praise songs that I craved after she left us to resume her travels.
Gran had toured around the world for as long as I could remember. She was preparing to retire when our parents died in the car crash, but she kept working so we could finish college without student loans. She was independent and stubborn. But when she nearly burned down her apartment building last month for the third time and landed in the hospital, my sister and I moved in together to take care of her.
Gran was disoriented and gaunt when the emergency responders found her. My sister and I navigated through a barrage of follow-up appointments to help Gran return to her baseline. A hearing specialist determined that Gran’s hearing aids weren’t working properly, and we bought the savviest replacements on the market. My sister paired them with her cell phone, tailoring the settings to Gran’s needs. We saw a flicker in Gran’s eyes when the first sounds were transmitted. Her gaze met mine, but then I lost contact, as if she’d recognized an old friend and recoiled once she realized it was a case of mistaken identity. My sister grabbed Gran and hugged her tight, muttering, “Don’t worry, Gran. We’ll get you back.”
Just as the sun rose the following morning, I awakened to a familiar voice. “Would you turn the music up?” Gran asked melodically as she wandered into my bedroom, her body swaying with the worship dance she performed in the middle of the floor. I didn’t hear any music, but my grandmother was finally speaking. I opened my mouth to respond, but I couldn’t find any words. Tears streamed down my face.
“Why are you crying? Hark! The herald angels are singing! This is the joyous season of our Lord’s birth. Why are there no Christmas decorations in this house? We raised you better than that. Get up and find the decorations. They’re playing my Christmas album. Do you remember when I recorded it live at the old church?” she asked.
I could never forget the Christmas concert — the first time I saw Gran sing in public. I was only six years old, but I noticed she was different when she sang. Gran transformed. She was calm. Her voice was gentle and soothing. I wafted on every note.
“Are you listening to me? How long does this music stay on?” Gran probed.
“Yes, ma’am. Sit here for just a minute. I’ll be right back,” I said as I settled Gran on my bed and then darted to my sister’s room.
“Gran’s losing it,” I whispered as I shook my sister awake. “She’s hearing voices. Or music. Oh, I don’t know. It’s June. She thinks it’s Christmas. She’s talking. But it doesn’t make sense. Something’s definitely wrong. We should bring her back to the hospital. She’s got some kind of psychosis.”
My sister stirred, nearly eyeing me like Gran had for the past month. Then it registered. “Yes!” my sister cackled. “I mean, no, it’s not psychosis. Didn’t I tell you? I started streaming a playlist of her gospel songs last night? I set it up through my phone. I thought she might like it since she got her hearing aids,” she explained.
We heard Gran’s footsteps in the hallway and followed her into the living room. She walked to the open space in front of the television and stopped on an invisible mark on the floor. As if on cue, Gran began to sing, the delight shining through her eyes. She was finally back home.