97: Pretty Little Heaven

97: Pretty Little Heaven

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Living with Alzheimer's & Other Dementias

Pretty Little Heaven

He who sings frightens away his woes.

~Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quixote

When two people truly love each other, it is hard for one to imagine life without the other. I believe this was the case for my grandmother, Abuela Hilda. My grandparents met when they were teenagers in Havana, Cuba, got married young and had been inseparable ever since. They had three strapping young boys, the eldest being my father. After the Cuban Revolution, they left everything behind and moved to Miami, Florida to pursue a better life. They lived a humble life and always made sure the house was filled with love.

Many years later, my grandfather died of lung cancer and shortly after my grandmother started showing symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease. My sisters and I were fairly young, so for a while we were unaware of what was happening to Abuela. We loved her and would always visit her on Sundays, spending the day talking, laughing and — my personal favorite — singing together. Although we’re Cuban, she would often sing “Cielito Lindo,” a popular Ranchera song from Mexico. The chorus goes like this: “Ay, ay, ay, ay. Cantay no llores/ Porque cantando se alegran/ Cielito lindo, los corazones.” [“Ay, ay, ay, ay. Sing and don’t cry. Because singing gladdens, pretty little heaven, the hearts.”]

Abuela had a slow decline. What at first seemed like simple forgetfulness became alarming when she looked at my dad and asked, “Who are you?” I had fewer and fewer conversations with her and her temper got progressively worse. My dad was a trouper throughout. He remained so strong and stoic that sometimes we didn’t realize how serious it was. We watched her shift between recognition and confusion until the day came when she stopped being aware that she even had memory problems.

The notion that my abuela had Alzheimer’s disease didn’t hit home until one Sunday while we were all talking in the back yard. I was making a joke and trying to get her to laugh when she began screaming at my sisters and me, calling us names and demanding to know why we were in her house. No amount of begging and pleading could make her recognize us again. She had passed the point of no return.

Sometimes she would think she was back in Cuba, going to see a friend and we would find her wandering in the middle of the street. We hired a live-in caregiver to make sure she was safe, and to feed, dress, and bathe her.

Conversations with Abuela grew shorter and shorter until eventually she just sat in her rocking chair as we all took turns trying to engage her. Every now and then she would say a few words and everyone would stop to listen. But best was when out of the blue she would begin singing “Cielito Lindo.” “Ay Ay Ay Ay/Cantay no llores…” Did she know what she was singing? Was she trying to tell us something? Was this perhaps all the comfort she could muster to offer my father and the rest of us? She had forgotten her name, her family, and even how to perform basic bodily functions, yet was able to sing this timeless song with ease.

Our last few weeks together were unspeakably sad. Even the indomitable armor that my dad seemed to don finally cracked and I saw him cry for the first time in my life. On her hospital bed, her tender body lay motionless and her curly hair lightly framed her surprisingly piercing green eyes. We stayed by her side, holding her hand until the very end. Days would go by where she wouldn’t say a word. At this point, she seemed to have forgotten everything. Her body and mind had failed her, and yet oddly enough, the only thing she seemed to remember was that familiar song as her frail voice floated through the hospital halls. “Ay Ay Ay Ay, Cantay no llores . . .” Was there a tiny piece of her fighting until the very end, a small voice struggling to be heard amidst the fog of dementia? Was this perhaps the song she and my grandfather would dance to?

I’ll never know. She was seventy-six when she passed away on Valentine’s Day.

The memory of Abuela’s voice singing that song still echoes deep within my soul. I grew up to be a singer among other things, and if that song was her last message to us then her legacy lives on. When given the choice to sing or to cry, I think of my Abuela, and I sing.

~Yvette Gonzalez-Nacer

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