It always starts out personal. In 2010 my grandmother had a stroke. She was 90 years old. We had always been able to understand each other with just a look, especially in awkward moments.
We would lock eyes and just begin to laugh, the kind of deep, rich laugh that warms the soul. The best part of this laugh was that we didn’t need to speak — it was a connection beyond words.
Several months after my grandmother’s stroke, I was visiting her at my mom’s house when one of these moments should have happened. I looked for her gaze, but she looked back at me with a blank stare. That’s when I knew that a part of her was gone. The one piece that was the most intimate and personal aspect of our relationship had indeed disappeared.
My grandmother and I had shared not only a sense of humor but also a mutual love of color and fashion. I express my love of color through paint, and she expressed hers with fabric. The old Devine Color paint cans used to say, “Goes on Like Yogurt and Looks Like Chiffon,” a tongue-in-cheek homage to her passion for sewing. She loved sewing because she loved color.
I remember the peach nectarine dress with gold trim and pearl accents she made for my school musical pageant. I was the best-looking violin ever. I remember the yellow chiffon dress she made me for a Quinceañera ball. But most of all, I remember the white silk dress she made for my wedding 20 years ago. It would be her last.
She always told me that I looked best in white and to this day it’s still one of my favorite colors to wear.
When my grandmother had her second and final stroke, my mother and I did what most people do; my mother and I frantically searched for a rehab facility that could take her and possibly rehabilitate her back to a functioning life. My grandmother, for the first time in her adult life, would be in an environment she had no control over.
I was on my way to L.A. to spend New Year’s Eve with my husband and kids when I stopped to see her in the assisted living facility on December 29th. At that point, she was in the hospital and had not opened her eyes in weeks. I sat beside her on her bed and told her that I was going to L.A. for New Year’s Eve, but that I would be back. She suddenly opened her eyes — WIDE open. She looked at me and for the first time in over a year, I could read her mind. Her eyes spoke to me and clearly said, “Que Dios Te Bendiga.” This was a phrase she always said to me, like a mantra, right before I walked out the door, hung up the phone, or left on a trip.
It means, “May God Bless You.”
I started to cry uncontrollably. I told her I knew what she was saying. Her eyes once again revealed that she understood. I kissed her forehead and walked away feeling both relieved and sad. Right after that moment, my mother told me, she closed her eyes and never opened them again. She died on January 1st, 2012. I was at the beach late that in the afternoon when I got the call.
I had never walked into an assisted living facility before my grandmother’s second stroke. While the people who worked there were undoubtedly genuine, the environment looked artificial. When someone walks into my mother’s house, they immediately know she is from another country. She uses bright, bold colors with almost reckless abandon. I always picture my mother and grandmother surrounded in bright and beautiful colors. In Puerto Rico, where my family is from, brilliant colors are an ageless commodity. No matter how wealthy or poor, young or old — having striking and bright colors all around you is the norm.
My grandmother looked like a doll out of place in that drab facility. Somewhere in the recesses of my mind, I kept on thinking, if the environment had been saturated in beautiful colors; she would have wanted to open her eyes. I’ll never forget the feeling of seeing this colorful woman surrounded by endless, dull beige.
That’s when I heard the call, a defining moment that sparks the pursuit of a road less traveled. I developed a color protocol called Color With Benefits focused on using color in meaningful ways to benefit memory, dementia patients, and their caregivers. I became a board of the Alzheimer’s Association, Oregon chapter, and continue to seek opportunities to redefine the use of color in Elderly Care to make endings as colorful as beginnings…