I’ve always had a strange relationship with my grandmother (My mother’s mother).  As far back as I can remember she was not a nice woman.  She was never quick to offer congratulations for a job well done, and I’m not certain that I ever heard her compliment someone (or really even something).  I always thought of her as the entrance toll that you had to pay to deal with my grandfather.

My grandfather, Lewis (Lou), was by far one of the most influential people in my life.  I remember being a young child and how excited he would get me about both computers, and math.  He was a navigator of a flying fortress in World War 2, though he never spoke about this (except for once in the last years of his life, I managed to get a few stories out of him).  My grandfather was kind, even tempered and loving.  He was encouraging of me to be a better person, and seemed to always enjoy having family around.  He provided wonderfully for his whole family working as a Vice President at State Farm Insurance, though this was before I was born.   This was in the late 80s and while I was pushing 10 years old and my grandfather at least in his late 50s or early 60s, and even still he was always talking about what new piece of computer technology he’d read about in PC World.

I think he enjoyed tennis and golf as well, but I never participated in any of these sports with him, but I know he enjoyed watching them.  He dressed in vibrant bright colors and loved to travel.  I have a post card collection from my grandparents travels, and the box is remarkably heavy with at least a thousand post cards sent from different locales.  That was the kind of person he was, stopping to make sure my post card collection would get another stamp despite him being in the middle of some tropical paradise.  My grandfather was also very healthy, he ate well and didn’t drink much (an occasional beer).  His one vice (that we both shared) was Lemon Meringue pie, which I love to this day.  This made it all the more shocking to all of us when we found out that he had throat cancer, and that it was inoperable.

His condition (in my mind) quickly worsened, and I remember this strong vibrant person quickly wasting away.  As he grew more sick, the sense of despise and hatred I felt towards my grandma Anne grew and grew.  She had been a pack a day (at least) smoker most of her life, and had severe emphysema.  Even though she claimed she had stopped smoking she wasn’t great at hiding the fact she still did so regularly, even though it was clearly killing her (and my grandfather).   Unfortunately this bitter resentment I felt towards her couldn’t do anything to help him.   I vividly remember a moment where we were all sitting around at Christmas and my grandparent’s had gotten a sport coat for one of my uncle’s as a Christmas gift.  It had been left in the other room, and for whatever reason when my grandmother snapped at my grandfather to go get the coat, something snapped in my head and she might has well have struck him.

This man that I had always regarded as a hero, and such a strong vibrant force of personality rose to his feet.  He walked with his head slightly bowed, on bone thin legs, speckled with liver spots and offered no response or reply.  When he returned and handed over the coat he sat back down and looked distant, as if he was barely present.  Shortly after that, despite his wishes to remain in his home and fight the disease, he was sent to hospice care where he was forced to come to terms with his disease, give up fighting, and die.

My last memory of my grandfather was sitting in a room with him, his body gaunt and his eyes sunken and closed.  He had an IV in his arm and was barely conscious.  When I touched his hand he recoiled, though I’m uncertain if he was truly aware someone was present or it was just a muscle memory reflex.  I sat and held his hand for a while, watching him and wanting to be in his presence but the man I was sitting with was nothing like the person who was such an inspiration to me.  I left, and found out that he died hours later.  To this day I can’t decide whether or not going to see him one last time was something I regret or not.  I can’t come to terms with those feelings.  This was the first time I’d lost someone truly close to me, and the depression and forced stare-down with my own mortality lasted several months (and still hits me from time to time today).

For a long time, the only way I could cope with the loss of my grandfather was to be angry at my grandmother.  She had, essentially, killed him.  But as time passed I couldn’t stay angry.  I realized that here was a woman who’d spent the majority of her life with a partner who was now gone.  She didn’t know how to live life without him, because sick or healthy he’d always been there.  I’ve heard people use the phrase “Didn’t have a reason to go on living”, but after seeing her without him I really knew what that phrase meant.  At one point she got really drunk and fell down in her kitchen and just laid there.  She didn’t try to get to a phone or get help, she just waited to die.  Luckily someone came by the house and found her and at that point we moved her into an assisted living facility, but this was the only time I’d seen someone really give up on life.

It was then that I realized that whatever ill will I had towards my grandmother was misplaced and whatever pain I thought I was going through was no doubt dwarfed by whatever she felt.  She had loved with every fiber of her being, and once that love stopped being in her life, she stopped caring about it at all.

She went through the grieving process, and I realized that I wanted to get to know better by grandmother who I’d written off most of my life until then.  So I moved out to Palm Desert and spent roughly 6 months hanging out with  her.  Mostly the routine was pretty simple, I ended up getting a job bagging groceries out there to keep busy, so in the evenings two or three times a week I would pick her up and drive her somewhere to get dinner and then take her back.  I’d stop by other days, and then on the weekends we’d go out and do something a bit more involved.  Sometimes we’d go for a drive, other times we’d go shopping, or I’d take her to get her hair done.  Mostly she liked to get out of the home she was in.

Her lucidity would come and go, and sometimes she would talk about things that I couldn’t even vaguely keep track of.  Other times she would reminisce about my grandfather, or things she’d done in her life.  Things she enjoyed and things she didn’t.  Things she liked about the world and things she didn’t.  The specifics didn’t stick in my memory, but I remember the depression she always felt.  She hated that I had to physically lift her out of her wheel chair and help her into the car, and do the same at our destination.  She would get tired being out all day.  She threw up on herself.  She got drunk.  She liked looking at flowers and getting her hair done.  She was a vibrant, beautiful normal person.

I got a phone call yesterday from my sister that she had died.  She’d been in hospice care and had stopped eating, so this wasn’t a surprise to anyone.  The nurse that was with her said she was sleeping and her breathing just slowed and stopped.  I don’t think it’s really set in to me yet that she’s gone.  She would always seem to get very sick and then bounce back.  As my dad said upon learning she’d passed “I’m very sorry, she was a tough old bird.”

I think my dad’s comment really hits the nail on the head about my grandmother.  I think what I love most about Grandma Anne, thinking back about her, is what a willful and strong personality she had.  Her daughters and granddaughters all inherited this trait and she didn’t overly concern herself with what the world thought of her, she concerned herself with what she thought was right.  She visited a chicken farm on a class field trip in grade school, and what she saw there was disturbing enough to her that she never again ate chicken for the rest of her life.  She liked white wine (Pino Grigio inparticular), and Brandy and she figured she was old enough and had lived a long enough life that if she wanted to drink, then she was going to drink.  She was physically robust as well, and suffered through maladies and sicknesses with great poise.  And I think most importantly of all, she did have a huge heart.  I missed it at first, but the more I got to know her the more I could really appreciate just how much she loved and missed my grandfather.  There wasn’t a day I spent with her that I don’t think she thought of him, and did so fondly.

My grandparents brought together our family every year for Christmas and gave us a roof over our heads and a reason to celebrate.  They raised 4 children, who in turn had 6 children.  I’m not religious but I know that my grandfather would have been happy that my grandmother was comfortable, and that we were close.    I wish I knew my grandmother better.  I wish I’d been able to see her one last time, but I think she knew how much I loved her.

So this Thanksgiving, please hug your loved ones a little bit tighter for me, and if you can, reach out to the ones who’ve hurt you and realize they’re just as confused and lost in this great big world as you are.

Me and Grandma