This is not a happy post; one I hoped to never write, but also something that has been heavy on my heart for some time now and something I hope to look back on, read, and be able to say it had a happy ending.
I got back last night from a whirlwind of a trip to visit my one and only grandma at her new "home" in Arkansas. She has been living with my aunt for a year and a half, since a stroke and series of surgeries rendered her unable to live alone and forced her to make the heartbreaking decision to leave behind the legacy she had built over six decades in Redondo Beach, California. My mom had warned me that her health had steeply deteriorated in the short time since she moved and I knew I wanted to visit her as soon as possible before it grew worse. I packed my carry-on and boarded the plane Thursday morning, unsure what to expect, but by Saturday night I had seen enough. As my mom and I sat on the floor of the guest room, opening still-sealed boxes of my Grandma's belongings that had been withheld from her reach; unwrapping photos that had once been crowded onto her living room bookcase, souvenirs from her trips around the world, and even her college degree- which she earned around age 50- it occurred to me that I had not yet heard her laugh once the entire weekend.
My Grandma is truly the most incredible and inspiring woman I have ever known. She taught me to work hard, respect myself, follow my dreams, never stop learning, and "find things everyday that make me happy". She is the glue that has held my circus of a family together over the years and the most generous and kind-hearted person you'll ever know. Her laugh is infectious and she filled the room with her presence, always thriving in the spotlight and in social activities. If you saw this woman's resume, of things she accomplished in the second-half of her life alone, you would be amazing. But over the course of a few short days, watching my Grandma stare blankly out a window and cling to her walker, was like watching a mere shell of who I always knew her to be. Yes, she requires greater medical attention and her mind is increasingly distant but not hearing her laugh, not seeing the sparkle in her sea-blue eyes, broke me in half.
Later that same night, when I finally went downstairs to brush my teeth, I saw that the light was on in her bedroom so my mom and I decided to make sure everything was alright. She was fine, just having trouble staying asleep, so she had gotten up and turned on the radio. We brought in a binder we had found in one of the boxes of her things; it was a biography that my brother had written about her- "his hero"- while he was in high school. I asked if she remembered him writing this for her and she said "Oh yes! I remember he sat there and wrote and I just talked and talked". She read a page and a half out loud, stopping intermittently to add details about stories, people, places, and things as she recalled them. She didn't even use her glasses to read. She smiled, she laughed... my mom and I both cried. Poor Grandma couldn't figure out why but she just patted my leg and said "love you, honey". Around 1:30am, we asked her if she was getting sleepy from reading and she perked up, tapped her finger on the page and said "Oh no, now I'm all excited! This is fun!"
I listened to her laugh, tell me stories from her past; ones that I had heard countless times before and also for the first time it seemed. I looked around her new room, so different from the 700 sq. ft condo by the beach she called home for the past two decades. Some things I recognized: her leather arm chair, her oak china cabinet, her pet bird "Baby" that I helped her pick out at the petshop years ago... but everything else was... different. Her pictures weren't on the walls (which turned out to be a much bigger issue than I thought), her chotchkes weren't on her shelves, and it didn't even smell like my grandma's house (hard to explain, but you know how the way a person or place smells can trigger all sorts of memories). It was hard for me to all digest. Things have changed and I don't think I like it.
The next morning, we were packed and getting ready to fly home when the straw broke the sad little camel's back... one request to hang my Grandma's pictures on her walls turned into a full-fledged family feud. I'll spare details, but I was absolutely shocked to discover how much bitterness, jealousy, and anger certain family members had been harboring for not only years, but decades... lifetimes really. The floodgates swung open and all of the ugliness that has been hiding behind sarcastic and smug attitudes was exposed. Family sure can bring out the best and worst in people... especially when it's fueled by delusions of something as sinister as money (money and family are like oil and water in my mind... the two never mix).
What truly breaks my heart is that my Grandma's life, her incredible legacy, has boiled down to numbers on a page in the eyes some of those she loves. It's hard when there's nothing you can do but hug and kiss her goodbye, promise to see her soon, plan to write and call as often as possible, and hope that an answer will come so that she can live her last thriving years in peace, surrounded by the love of the relationships near and far that she has nurtured throughout her life.
My heart is still heavy, filled with bitterness, and I am angry, yet I feel somewhat helpless as I wait and see what happens next. While certain things seem out of my control for now, I can certainly promise to love my one and only Grandma with all my heart and give the best that I can to my family, my marriage, my home, my friends, and my job - that's what she always did and taught me to do.