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Friday, February 25, 2011

The Promise

In today's version of the "modern family" the living environment of my youth wouldn't be all that unusual, but in the perfect little world of private schools I was the only one that I ever knew that lived like I did. In her effort to give me the best that she could my mom and my grandparents had come to some resolution before I was born that we would live with them. So, while they were still my grandparents they really were much closer than that.

 While I loved my mom and my grandpa my relationship with my grandma was my closest one. She and I rarely fought and our personalities didn't seem to clash in the same way as mine did with my other "parents." I stayed home all day with my grandma and then once I started school, she was the one that greeted me when I came home. I remember climbing into my grandma's bed when I didn't feel well and she would sing me this litany of songs and nursery rhymes. Cuddled up with her I would relax and feel better as she recited the words in her perfect, off-key pitch. She's the one with which I remember discussing some of the momentous news stories of my young lifetime. Watching the special reports of the hostages being freed, the attempted assassination of Reagan and the Pope and the space shuttle explosion she would sit behind her ironing board pressing clothes, discussing with me what I saw on the TV. And I remember joining her on Friday nights, sprawling across her bed and watching Dallas when I didn't always fully understand what was happening. Nothing changed as I aged - if I had a fight with my mom or my grandpa, it was my grandma that would talk to me and smooth things over as I cried to her. She was always the person that I would turn to when I needed kindness and compassion the most.

In my late 20s and early 30s I'd taken a ten-year hiatus from really living life. I would go to work, read books, watch TV, do things with my family and very, very occasionally I'd do things with friends. I'd effectively pushed most of the people in my life away, lost touch others or would figure out an excuse to not go to this or that event with those that invited me. I was coasting through adulthood. And during this time I spent a lot of time with my grandma - eating dinners, watching television or movies, shopping and talking.

So, on that August day when she called and wanted us all at her house I started crying before I even hung up the phone. I didn't know what it was, but I knew that there was no good news that was going to be delivered. Since about January she'd had a sore back. Therapy hadn't worked and that morning she'd been at the doctor's office after he had ordered some x-rays. This ache turned out to be the only symptom of pancreatic cancer. It was stage four, there was no treatment and she had three to six months to live. Even though I was trying to be strong for her, I couldn't stop crying for weeks. She told me that she'd had a good life - 83 years where she felt blessed by her family and friends. It sounds logical, but it didn't matter, there is really never enough years with the people most important to you. Knowing that someone lived a full, good life is no consolation when you know that you have to keep living without them.

For the first few months you wouldn't have known how sick she was. The pain medications kept her going, even if it was at a slower pace. I spent even more time at her house. The last week in October was the beginning of the end. A small surgical procedure that was a comfort measure lead to an infection and that lead to more weakness. She wanted to stay at home, so arrangements were made with schedules and hospice care to make this possible. Everyday after work I'd visit her and help and on the rare occasions when I couldn't make it to her house I'd talk to her on the phone checking in on her throughout the day.

 Eventually I went to my apartment gathered a bunch of clothes and essentials and moved in with her to help. And as difficult as those days were, I cherish a lot of the moments from them. In the early evenings when she would head up the stairs to her bedroom for the night, I'd follow her providing physical support as she navigated the steep stairs. I'd help her with anything she needed and then I'd sit with her and most of the time we would just talk and talk. I'd hold her hand before she drifted off to sleep and say prayers with her that I didn't believe in anymore. And when she'd fall asleep, I'd cry silent tears before I'd get up and waste a few hours and then go to sleep myself.

There are many, many things that were said during these conversations, but one of them stands out more than others. One night, seemingly out of the blue she looked at me and told me I was such a beautiful girl, she wished that I could be happy. I never talked about not being so, but she knew. For me, that was her dying wish  - be happy, begin to live the life that I wanted and should be living and find out how to get those few things that she knew that I was longing for even though I didn't really admit them to myself. She wanted me to promise that I would discover how to do this and I made that promise, not only because she was sick and it felt like the wrong place to argue, but also because deep down I knew that I wanted to figure out myself how to do those things.When I was facing the end of my days I wanted to be able to look back and see something, anything, that really mattered that I'd accomplished.

The days got tougher and tougher. During those months I learned much about how the heart and mind prepares when it knows the end of life is near. I found myself doing things that no one imagines they can ever do in the care for a loved one. Anyone that's lived through something like this knows how emotional and physically draining it is. It was by far the most arduous experience that I've ever lived through, but I would never not make that same choice to take care of her if faced with it again. During the second week of January my grandma died after a long, beautiful life that really wasn't long enough.

For the next six months I made it to work and then drove home as I cried and grieved. I would sit on my sofa every night and read just to keep from thinking too much. I was on a book-a-day pace for months. At first if I let my mind drift I could only remember the painful moments that no one talks about; those things that you see at the end as the horror of the cancer wrecks havoc on a body. Those times at the end when as much as I didn't want to let her go, I knew that I couldn't keep seeing her go through that pain.

After a few months I could see beyond the suffering and would remember those conversations. And I kept thinking of that promise that I made to her. I wanted to keep it, but I couldn't figure out how to get there. And now I had to figure it all out without her guidance. How do you get to the life where you have all the simple things that your heart desires? My mind was a blank. Any time in my past when I'd tried to make a start toward what I thought I wanted. I stumbled, fell and found myself deeper and deeper in a hole of darkness. Eventually it was easier to stop dreaming, stop hoping and just carry on existing - it hurt less.

In June, engrossed in one of my books, something happened. In this novel the girl protagonist, two years following her father's sudden death was facing the task of figuring out how to move on through her grief. She was so afraid of not being perfect that she stopped trying to be anything at all. In the course of her journey, she meets a new group of friends that she finally connects with and learns how to begin facing her future.

With tears in my eyes, I finished this book not knowing that in a few short minutes, I too would have a breakthrough moment. Almost without thinking I looked around the room, and my eyes stopped on a notebook on my nightstand. I picked it up and fished around for a pen and then I began to write and the words about my dad and feeling unloved and abandoned were out on the page. Thoughts that I didn't even know I had were now staring back at me. If anyone had told me these revelations before this moment I wouldn't have believed them. For years I'd been blase when anyone would suggest that my upbringing may have effected me. This was a deep secret pain that I had to unearth myself.

And slowly, staring at that secret that I'd scratched on the page that was now doted with my tears, the heavy burden of my grief and of my past lifted. Staring at the key to so many reasons that I'd ceased living was a gift. Now, how to take that gift and apply it to my life. Staring at my barrier and my demons I now would be able to try to figure out how to keep that promise that I'd made that one night - now, I could see how one day I might be happy.

So after my grandma had given me so much in my life she delivered me one final gift that day - she guided me down a path that helped me see clearly for the first time the woman that I wanted, needed and desired to become.

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