currently: listening to 'Before Our Time' by Jon Foreman.
Day 21: A box of cards
If there's one thing I collect in my life - it's cards.
Christmas cards, birthday cards, invitations, and any funny envelopes that come with it - I've pretty much kept all I've ever received. I can find you the invite to my first sleepover when I was 9, the Christmas card I got from my workmate last month, and even a 'Happy Australia Day' card I got in 2007 an online friend who lived in Sydney. If you've ever handed me a 'To Mel, from (whoever)", I've probably kept it in my overflowing box of cards.
When I was younger, there was one card I always looked forward to receiving in the mail, from someone I called 'Grandma' - even though we weren't related whatsoever. She was a tall, blonde Dutch lady, married to an equally tall Dutch man. They lived with a tiny Scottish Terrier, in a house that always smelled of perfume and shortbread cookies. She played the role of grandmother in my life in New Zealand, because I never could connect with my own Malaysian grandparents. But I loved and treated her as if she was my actual grandmother.
Every school holidays during my primary school years, we would visit her house to have lunch and biscuits. She'd serve us juice and Dutch cookies, and ask us about school and my violin. She'd share with us her latest crafts or paintings hanging on the wall, and point out the latest home renovations she had done or additions she made to her beautiful garden at the top of a cliff that faced Rangitoto Island. Then we'd play games like Rummikub or do crafts for hours, until mum had to practically drag me away, under the promise we would visit again very soon.
Every July, I would receive a birthday card from her. And while on the cover they looked like standard stationary shop gift cards, inside the pages were filled with colourful drawings done by her own hand. She'd glue paper hearts, or paint flowers, and every time she'd write a message giving me a little update on her life, making sure to sign 'God Bless' from her and Dutch Grandpa. Each card was different, but she always drew the same one thing in the centre - a heart. Her cards were my favourite cards to receive.
It was around my intermediate years when she was diagnosed with Alzheimer's. I didn't understand it at first, but I saw this tall, loving Dutch lady become more forgetful with each visit. She'd still serve us juice and biscuits but there were moments she'd stop in her own forgetfulness, trying to laugh and smile so she could hide her quiet frustrations from us kids.
The visits became less frequent after that, and eventually my mum stopped taking us to see her, choosing to visit her on her own while we were in class. My mum would share with me how Dutch Grandma was, and what progress she was making when she saw her. But little by little, Alzheimer's began to claim the person I knew. She stopped doing house renovations, stopped tending to her garden, and eventually stopped painting.
Later on, Dutch Grandma and Dutch Grandpa moved away from Auckland, shifting down the country where she could receive more specialised care. I didn't hear about her for years until my mum received the call she had died. I was 18 and I remember my mum telling me this news, saying it meant she was finally free from Alzheimer's to go be with the Lord. I agreed, then I went to my room, opened my box of cards and let myself cry alone as I reread the cards she sent me on my birthdays past.
The cards in my box are all about celebrating; celebrating my birthday, their birthday, Christmas, or even Australia Day. And it's also a box of memories, of the people who have been in my life and spared a piece of paper and a few seconds to care about me.
I still may shed a tear for my Dutch Grandma every now and then, for the memories she would have lost of me in her later life, and the life she left behind on Earth. But I'll be thankful for the wonderful memories I can keep of her for myself, just like the way I keep her messages in my box of cards.
For the month of January 2016, I'm writing 31 personal stories about things in my life I'm thankful for. See all my posts during my month of thankfulness here.