Thursday, November 29, 2007

tonight i write for grandma gail

Tonight I write for Grandma Gail.

(This original post was written 11.29.07. Today is 1.28.14 and Grandma Gail died this morning. She actually recovered very well from the sudden heart problems that I describe in this post, and she went on to actually quit smoking, which I never thought would happen! Unfortunately, a few years ago she was diagnosed with lung cancer. She received treatment and went into remission for a while, but when the cancer re-occurred about a year ago the doctors deemed her health too unstable to treat. For the last year she has been living with the awareness that her death was approaching, however the cancer progressed very little, and it was a secondary infection that ultimately called the last breath from her.

More importantly, from the time I wrote this post I was able to engage more actively with Gram. Though I did not see her often, my family made a point to visit when we could, and I spoke with her on the phone more frequently.

We all found she softened a good bit. She reluctantly moved out of the house she had shared with my great grandmother and relocated to an apartment in a complex with other elders and lot of social support. To her surprise, she made friends, she played cards, she got to visit the casino, she helped plan parties! It is with a glad heart that I can say in her final years Grandma Gail relaxed and had a little fun.

I am so grateful that i was able to visit her in her very last days and introduce her to her newest great grandchild. Just over a week ago I made the trek to Pittsburgh from North Carolina to see her. Arduous as it was to go on a long, snowy drive with my 9 month old baby and my 2 1/2 year old niece along, the timing was so very good. We had two days of gentle, easy visits with her in her apartment, and quite literally we were visiting with her until the last moments she ever spent there. She was taken to the hospital just after we left and never returned home.

She thanked me again and again for bringing the babies to see her. She and I had a few good minutes of one-on-one talking about waiting for death. She told me she did not know how to die, and all I could do was liken it to birth. "We don't know how to give birth either, Grandma, and we don't know when it's going to happen. We just need to believe in the process and let it come." I am grateful she did not have to wait very long, as she expressed being ready for the end.

I am also very, very grateful that in her final days that she did have a lot of family nearby, after all. My cousins and uncle lived close to her and helped her regularly. My mother was able to have a long visit over the holidays, and my boys got to see her briefly then, as well. My sister moved to Pittsburgh months ago and has been dutifully visiting and caring for her during this time. My aunt has flown frequently from New Mexico to make several prolonged visits to make sure her care was excellent and her needs were well met. My sister and aunt were both with her until late into last night sharing stories and love.

I love you, Grandma. I envision your energies peacefully and freely mingling amongst all the universe now. Thank you for bringing life to our family. Blessed be.)

My grandma is in the hospital. Late last night, alone in her house so recently vacated by her mother, her only roommate for the last ten years who died this past summer, Grandma Gail called 911, terrified I'm sure, by the horrific pain in her chest. She was rushed to one hospital, then life flighted to another apparently in some imminent danger, and now she rests in the ICU, medicated and sedated while they wait to stabilize her blood pressure so they can open up her chest and work their way to the aneurysm swelling threateningly in her tough old heart.

See, my grandma is no white-haired sweetie who bakes cookies and sends birthday cards every year or care packages in your first year of college. That was my great grandma, her mother, who we called Sita, who passed on, as I said, earlier this year. Gail was never very maternal or nurturing. She is actually quite a miserable old lady who smokes way too much and is prejudiced and judgmental and just a wee bit delusional. She spends too much money on lottery tickets, has a loudly voiced opinion on everything whether you want to hear it or not and is usually no fun to be around. So now, having driven most of her family away from her, she is alone.

Except now, the only place in the world I want to be is by her side. Because right now, I don't care about all the ugly things she said to me when I was a teenager, right now, she is my grandma, my ancestor, and I am afraid she could be at the end of her life. Right now I am remembering that this bitchy old lady used to be my favorite person in the world. There is a family legend of which I do have a vague recollection of living that as a very young child when my mom would tell me no or make me mad that I would cry and scream, "I WANT MY GRAAAAANDMAAAAA!!!" because I knew she'd save the day. Really.

When I was a little girl, my grandma spoiled me rotten. I was raised by a single mom who, like me, like every single mom, was really busy, so when I was very young I spent a lot of time with my grandma. She took me to K-Mart to buy me cheap plastic toys and she took me to the Eat-N-Park restaurant and fed me junk food, all of which I thought was very cool. She never cooked, but she did teach me how to make fried garlic bologna. And I thought it was really, really yummy.

But I have always known in my heart of hearts that Grandma Gail has had a much deeper and more formative impact on me. For all that I have come to know in later years that it was mostly a facade to hide her own pain, my grandma was tough. While other people's grandmas were white-haired and shriveled and in nursing homes, my grandma was sturdy and black-haired and loud. She ran her own business. Of course, through my child's eyes I had know idea her business was failing, miserably. Instead what I saw was a smart woman who could be a business-lady, who worked as an equal with men and drove a jeep out into the country to oversee operations. It doesn't matter now what a myth that is, what a mess it was, the impression it made on me lasted. Grandma Gail taught me I could be bossy, I could be in charge, and I don't think there is a soul who knows me who would argue I have done anything but live that lesson to my core.

Grandma Gail taught me to love books, love literature, love to write. Although the books she read were mostly crappy-ass romance novels, that woman read books voraciously. There were always, always books stacked by the dozen on her desk, her kitchen table and on the floor by her bed. She set an example that if you had free time, you better have your nose in a book. And I didn't know any better about what kind of books she was reading. I just saw that she was reading, all the damn time.

But you know what books she gave me? Shakespeare's plays. I was in fourth grade when my grandma bought me my first copy of Romeo and Juliet. I loved it. I didn't understand a goddamn word of it until I read it all again in high school, but then it was fluid like Seuss, because in early childhood I had mustered my way through that thick and indeciperable old English so it was back there in the recesses of my brain, and with the illumination of a few years and some English classes, suddenly that stuff made perfect sense. I can still recite the balcony scene by heart. Since the fourth grade.

And as much as she read, she wrote. She was aspiring to write the great American romance novel that was going to fly onto the bestsellers list with its buxom heroine on the cover and make grandma a bunch of money. And, like her every other endeavor, she failed at that. But that didn't stop her from clacking away at the cacophonous keys of her electric typewriter late into the night, sometimes really late into the night. She tried. She was really trying. And as I rapidly clack away at my somewhat more decorous computer keyboard composing this ode to her, there isn't a beat in my rhythm that wasn't put into motion by her. Looking around me at the volumes of poetry and blogs and journals I have written over the years, at my sister's nuance laden, remarkable song writing and my brother's deafeningly talented, late night poems, there is no argument that can be made that Gail didn't have a hand in making writers out of all of us.

I just can't figure out what the fuck went wrong. Grandma, for all the falsehoods she has come to rely on as fact the older she has gotten, is a really smart lady. She is highly intellectually gifted. She could have been a good writer. She could have run a successful business, but something was always wrong and for the life of me I have not been able to trace it to its source.

Our family is like a modern fairy tale, a tale of one daughter that grew like a favored flower on a vine and another who grew like a hardy weed, tough and irascible but never the delicate blossom you would bring home and admire. My great grandma Sita or Mary, as the rest of the world knew her, had two beautiful daughters, Gail and Wynne. I didn't know my great grandfather, but I heard he was a nice man, and Sita was a very lovely lady. They had traditional values, of which I am not a huge fan, but that was how the world worked early in the last century, right? And some of those traditional values were really based in an even older tradition, that I suspect I would appreciate more. Sita's family immigrated from Lebanon, five kids or so in tow and a couple more to be born in the new world. So Gail and Wynne grew up with a loving mother and father and lots of family around to shower them with love. They grew up on homemade Middle Eastern food with Arabic speaking aunties telling them stories.

So somehow along the way the two flowers diverged. Gail got married young, too young, to my grandfather who I never knew because he left before I made it into this story. She had three kids, beautiful and bright, and from their telling, she committed her worst failure of all by neglecting to nurture her babies as she should have. They resent her and her lack and their lives have been full of struggle, are still full of struggle. Wynne, though, well, she went to college, then got married, then had four kids, who all grew up to get educations, then careers, then spouses, then families-- and all in that order. Not that I think that is all there is to life, but those cousins of ours, they seem even-keeled, seem a little less stricken. They certainly have made some money, but they also seem to have a lot of love. They seem like happy people.

But my grandma's legacy has been poverty and drunkenness and drug addiction and divorce. Her kids have all seen it all, and most of us grandkids, too. And though I personally am truly happy and very content with my life now, it was a hell of a hard road getting here. And I do recognize and honor all of the radical thinking and revolutionary acts and outstanding art that has been born out the painful path that Gail's progeny have walked, too. The beauty in the dissonance (to quote Tool) stemming from Gail's side of the family is by no means lost on me.

But I can't help but hurt knowing that my grandma is not happy. She has never been happy. Not, I believe, for a day in all the years I've known her. And I am sad for her. I forgive all her ridiculous mistakes, all the times she called us names once we left behind childhood's innocence. Man, she hated that. She loved to dote on all of us as young children, but once she began to see a glimmer of our snarky adolescent independence, she turned on us like God turned on poor Adam and Eve once they had bitten that bittersweet apple of knowledge. When our innocence was lost, so was the grace we held in her eyes. And it was a really fucking hard fall for me, her pronounced favorite. But in retrospect, I know in my flesh made of her flesh that that was when she experienced her own fall. I am sure of it. When she lost her own innocence was when all the world went dark for her, and every time she saw one of her kids or her grandkids go through our natural progression out of the safety of childhood's naivete and into the relative danger of the dirty knowledge of adulthood, she went through her own loss again, and she could not bear it. She lashed out at us, as if to keep the very memories from her own mind, all the while, though, wanting only to protect is from the fears she held for us about growing up into the pain she has known for herself.

I don't know what happened, Grandma, but I wish I did. I wish I could take all that pain away from you and let you live your life again unfettered by that trauma and fear. I wish for all the world that any of us could have better tolerated your harping abuse, because maybe now we wouldn't all be so far flung away from you all over this big country and instead be by your bedside. I get it now. But it took you being incapacitated in a hospital 500 miles away from me for to really let it sink in.

When Sita died this summer I was the only one who didn't cry. I loved Sita, but I did not feel close to her, and she lived such a long, rich and happy life that when in her 96th year she didn't wake from a nap one summer afternoon, I felt nothing but relief and joy that she did not suffer, that her full life had come to its natural end. Today I've cried for Gail off and on all day. I want my grandma who I always thought was so strong to actually be strong. I do not want her life to end alone and miserable, for I would not wish that on anyone, but most certainly not on the woman from whom I learned that wearing boots made you look cool and swearing like a fucking truck driver isn't just for truck drivers. I wish that, despite our insistence that poverty is an act of revolution that we had somehow succeeded where she failed and that we all had enough goddamn money to take the week off work and jump onto planes and fly to her side.

When I was a little girl, I had a lot of fears. The dark veil that fell over our side of the family shrouded me most in my early years, and I had some real shit to be scared of. But I remember saying to grandma one time that I wasn't afraid of any monsters coming to get me at her house cause I knew she would scare them all away. I remember everyone laughed when I said that, and of course as a mommy now, familiar with the "out of the mouths of babes" phenomenon, and knowing how everyone felt about Gail, I understand why they laughed and the entirely different dimension of meaning there is to that story. But I also remember acutely, in a way I do not remember much else about my cloudy childhood, the feeling I had when I said that to her. I felt safe. I felt secure. And I did not feel that way much as a child. I am grateful my miserable grandma had the power to make me feel safe, had some sort of gift of illusion that lead me to believe she was strong, that demonstrated to me that women are strong. I have gone far with that belief.

As I sat writing this my mom called. Although she is still in ICU, it sounds as though maybe Grandma Gail is not as bad off as we thought earlier today. The diagnosis is no longer coronary aneurysm, but two small aortic tears brought on by a very serious and scary, nonetheless, attack of high blood pressure. This is just the beginning of the end. Born of her pain and self-loathing I am sure, Grandma Gail has not at all cared for herself well. I do not suspect she will make the mostly graceful exit that her mother made, having never lived with much of the same grace, either. It is too early still to know how she will recover from this episode and how she will respond to medications and instructions to, say, quit smoking (although, I can guess on that count). She will probably be bitchier now and in pain and feel even more persecuted than before. She may not be able to work, poor soul that she is, who has still been working almost every day at 75 years of age as a manager at a gas station because she's too poor not to. Fuck, what I wouldn't do to change that for her.

But I am grateful that her illness brought up this well of compassion and admiration for her that I didn't even realize until today that I harbor inside me. I am inspired to get more present in her life and figure out how I can be there for her if and when this happens again. And even more so, I feel suddenly dedicated to work on bringing her some joy, some comfort, some validation in the coming months and hopefully years of her life. I didn't realize until just now how much I forgive her. I didn't realize until I started writing how much that tough old broad really did help make me who I am today. And though I did not learn this trait from her, I really like myself and am proud to be who I am, a third generation single mother who swears too much and writes late into the night and fiercely protects her children from monsters in a way that I may have only imagined had been done for me, but that my grandma helped me imagine well enough to make it my reality.

(Grandma Gail loves unicorns, as do my mom and I. I picture her as the unicorn above with all of us gathering around her.)

1 comment:

Katie said...

My grandmother was brought to the ICU on Wednesday night. She is Mass. and fell on the ice, breaking her other hip. The stoic New Englanders that they are, they didn't call the ambulance until after an hour. good grief. She is only link I've ever had to "roots" in my life. My grandfather is in another hospital having surgery for cancer. it's amazing when life creeps up and whacks you. Abashedly, i know it's been there the whole time. I'll send my guardian angels to hang with your Grandma Gail, Justina. You are a beautiful woman.
Lots of love,