Friday, March 23, 2007

under the banyon tree

Originally uploaded by lolacatz.
My Bompa took a long time to die, which meant a lot of time bedside or chairside, listening to stories, hearing him spin out the memories of his days like a skein of wool that needed knitting so we’d have something to keep us warm and remember him by after he left us.

One afternoon we sat in his room at the rehab center where he had been transferred after a brief hospitalization. We were listening to Glen Miller and waiting for my grandmother. He was hopeful that we’d all go out for lunch when she arrived, and suggested that we could go to that lovely place by the water under the Banyon tree. He named the place but I didn’t recognize it – I was even more curious about the Banyon. It was a tree I was unfamiliar with.

In our family, trees are our familiars. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had a conversation with someone in my family about the loveliness of one tree or another (“I think that I shall never see…”); how many times we’ve debated the name of this species or that, and my grandmother always came up with the right answer. Always. So it was unusual to hear of one in my neighborhood that I had never met.

Bompa saw the puzzlement on my face and said: “Do you know about the Banyon tree?” No. I didn’t. “Oh!” he said – and took off, describing to me all of its wonderful qualities, and the joy of sitting beneath it. His eyes danced with light. I was getting hungry for the lunch we would have at this little restaurant that he loved, beneath the huge sheltering Banyon tree. We smiled together, I asked him more about the beautiful overarching tree, and he was happy to tell me all that he could. He. was. happy.

When Grama arrived I told her about our plans. Her smile fell suddenly and she said: “Arthur, you’re thinking of Hawai’i.”

My Bompa’s face fell as flat as hers. He looked disoriented, confused, chastised, uncertain.

She explained to him: You are in Seattle. You are not in Hawai’i. You are here. With us. In Seattle. There are no Banyon trees. You’re thinking of that place we loved in Hawai’i.

He looked miserable, and clearly he didn’t entirely believe her, but my grandfather, the brilliant litigator, couldn’t find the language or the logic or the evidence to argue his way out of this one.

I was thinking: Let up already, Grama. Let him be in Hawai’i if he wants to be in Hawai’i, goddammit. It makes him happy. Can’t you see how happy he is?

But, obedient granddaughter, I said nothing and looked at my hands in my lap. Embarrassed. Angry.

I don’t remember if we made it out the door for lunch that day. I don’t remember where we went. My memory stops at the look of pain that crossed my Bompa’s face, and at wondering why it was so important, so necessary, for my grandmother to bring him back, for her to be sure that he was HERE. With HER. Not lost somewhere in the depths of his memory.

I think I understand that desperation a little bit more now. For the last few weeks I’ve been receiving updates about my grandmother’s mental state from my aunt, and as the days pass they grow worse. Last night she wrote of my grandmother’s paranoid delusions – of bulging walls and intruders with murderous intent – and of her panicked wanderings through the halls of her assisted living community.

She’ll be hospitalized while we try to figure out if there’s any way to tame these anxieties.

And I find myself wishing that her aging brain would take her to that Banyon tree instead. Take her somewhere where her friends and family surround her, comfort her with memories. Not this strange and hostile territory where she knows no one and doesn’t belong.

Not this place where she’s all alone.


anniemcq said...

This was so beautiful. Painful and beautiful. I'm sending you good thoughts.

Rahul said...

I agree with anniemcq... what a beautiful and painful story. I have very fond memories of banyan trees... they are very common in India, so of course I was immediately drawn to your title. Its hard when you see memory dissipate... much harder than seeing physical decline. But, from your posts, it sounds like you've had some wonderful memories of your grandparents... cherish them!

patrick said...

Beautifully written, Dayna!

As I think you know, I experienced my first banyan trees a little over a week ago and was completely dumbfounded at their enormousness. They are so otherwordly and somehow stately and graceful.

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