I didn’t experience heartache in my teens. I never had that 80s-Molly Ringwald kind of love, which is inevitably followed by a messy breakup where I would cut pictures into a million pieces and return a box of his things in a mix of anger, devastation, and hopelessness that can only come from teenage love. I also never had that college romance where I settled into my first “grown up” relationship only to once again break up, tearing pictures of a once-happy couple, and return a sad box of belongings.

I guess I was lucky. I didn’t experience heartbreak until I was 24.

“How long have you been working here?”

“Where’s Doris?”

Those are the first two questions my Gram asked me as I helped her out of bed one sunny morning. The same Gram who once knew everything about me, from the way I liked my peanut butter sandwiches to my favorite teachers in school and what I wanted to be when I grew up, had suddenly forgotten my face.

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I say “suddenly,” but I guess there were signs. She would mistakenly call Grampy “Uncle Frank,” as if she wasn’t sure if I was a grandchild or a niece. Or she would call her great-grandchildren “my girl” or “my boy” when our names were just out of reach.

For some reason, all of that was somehow okay. She would forget plans, need extra help with everyday tasks, or misplace possessions, shaking her head with frustration but still able to laugh it off. But she didn’t forget me. She was forgetful, but even in those moments of confusion she always knew that I had a place in her life.

Then, suddenly, I became a nurse, a helper and a complete stranger. My first reaction was to exclaim, “Gram, it’s me! It’s Alexa!” But the last thing I wanted to do was to serve as another reminder of her forgetfulness. So, I got her up, and helped her with her morning routine—a quick wash, a fresh set of clothes, a horse pill cocktail, and a banana and applesauce breakfast—playing the role of the dutiful nurse, doing everything I could to keep my eyes dry and my voice level, because the last thing I wanted to do was cause any more distress.

So, at 24, for the first time in my life, I felt heartbreak. It wasn’t the same as losing a loved one—which is equally devastating in another way—it’s the fact that you’ve lost someone who is right here. She’s right here—she looks like Gram, she talks like Gram, and she is just as funny as Gram, but she’s slowly drifting away and I can’t keep her here no matter how hard I try.

In the meantime, I’ll continue to savor the moments where I’m still her first-born great-granddaughter, reminiscing about trips to Bradley’s, playing Go Fish, and the years of friendship and love between us over a couple of Diet Coke’s and a few slices of Tripoli pizza, sitting with our feet up in her lavender living room.

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