My grandmother is dying. A viciously slow death. The kind cancer tends to have ownership of.
The discovery came via phone call. After a half century of heavy smoking, we all knew this was a distinct possibility. Don’t get me wrong. It’s devastating. Just not surprising.
Within weeks of receiving this news, Hobbes and I left our house with lilacs blooming all over the yard. Ironic, really. Lilacs always bloom in Spring. To me, they’ve always been synonymous with celebrating the mothers in my life. Pulling out of our driveway, I kept hoping they’d still be there upon our return.
We touched down in the place where people from all over the world come to play with their children. The only things louder than the cicadas in the bushes were the fireworks I could see and hear from our restaurant. The heavy, warm air and lushness of the earth in April reminded me. It was familiar…only a couple dozen miles away from Neverland. This is where a very large portion of my being feels completely at home.
Weird. I was there to help my mom say goodbye to my grandma.
My grandmother and I haven’t been close. While many have memories of their grandmothers knitting hats for them or reading books, my memories are of her bringing Great-Grandmother’s ashes to the dinner table and an epic screaming fight involving cream cheese frosting flung throughout the kitchen. (We were still finding frosting on the ceiling 6 months later)
Although, come to think of it, I do have a crocheted blanket she made for me to take on away-games while I cheered for our high school’s football team. It was proof she loves me and I still have it.
Gratefully, we reconciled years ago. I had become an adult myself. I still, in my heart, feel I was right about what we fought over but she was too. I never should have yelled at her. Or sworn at her. Much less my parents.
That was so long ago. I understand much more than I did back then. I’d like to think I would have been a lot more patient. Patient of the fact that my grandmother was the product of neglect in an era when girls were often the unfortunate byproduct of trying to bare sons. Patient toward the little girl who was tossed from a boat and was literally told to sink or swim while watching the offender paddle away. Patient of the woman who, all her life, has only wanted to be loved but somehow has never learned to love herself. No wonder she sought escape.
It was in that grown-up frame of reference I found myself playing chauffeur to my incredible mother and her equally amazing sisters. There were five children in the family. 4 of which are alive today, having escaped the whirlpool of perpetual dysfunction. One wasn’t so lucky. It’s still too fresh.
It started out as a drive through the unpaved, backroads of Orlando, sharing old pictures digitized by my now tech-savvy mother and hearing the sisters’ perspectives on their story. When we finally made it to the seniors’ center, the view was so very Florida. Trees, heavy with Spanish moss, overlooked a lake sparkling with sunlit ripples. It was breathtaking.
Through the front doors and past the Memory Care Security, we found her lying in her bed. Completely passed out. It triggered memories. Not so good ones. As she awoke, she greeted us sweetly enough. Except, she couldn’t seem to remember her baby. I can’t fathom. Speculation has gone back and forth over how much she truly cannot recall. I have my own opinions. Regardless, it was gut wrenching to watch my dear aunt, with her brilliant blue, unforgettable eyes, explaining to her mother who she was.
That didn’t stop the sisters from turning on grandma’s favorite, Elvis. ‘Can’t Help Falling In Love’. That sleepy, wistful song brought back more memories. This time, good ones. We all danced. Mom moved her hips the way she tried to teach me when I was little. We laughed because it was a good moment. And then, the hacking cough, followed by the unearthly death rattle. It was a reminder of why we were there.
Another patron, we will call her Martha, wheeled herself into the room. With a bright, happy smile, she told us that God loves us, especially Hobbes. He beamed and squealed at her as she promised him ice cream cake and candy. (Although, she may have meant ice cream, cake and candy. I prefer ice cream cake.) She then promised to take us to London in the afternoon where we would all have ice cream cake and candy too.
Grandma heartily scowled at her. THERE she was. The Grandma I knew. I’m fairly certain they would have cursed at each other if Martha could’ve remembered the words. Grandma wouldn’t forget those.
By this time Hobbes was getting antsy and needed a bottle so I ducked out to grab food from the car. Upon returning, I got miserably turned around. A doctor approached me and asked, “Are you looking for the Memory Ward?”
“I can’t remember.” Yes. I actually said that.
He paused for a second, probably to compose himself, then led me back to the wing where he cleared me with his card.
I needed that moment of levity.
The visit ended soon enough and we were back in the car. This time, the conversation continued with the story of Grandma and Grandpa going sailing one day. They ran out of gas and were stranded on a deserted island. Grandma used her shirt as a torch to signal rescuers. How had I never heard that story before?
It made me jealous for a moment. All alone, with just my husband, ON A DESERTED ISLAND. There would have been at least a couple naked sun salutations and some sort of howling at the moon…not like the ‘Lord of the Flies’…more like Maurice Sendak’s sort. Not to mention, just think about how late we could sleep in!
That could have been the beginning of an incredibly romantic story. But it wasn’t.
Instead, the memory was followed by the recollection of the kids sitting in their car in Tijuana for hours while Grandma paid a visit to her dealer; of grandma disappearing for days; of neglect and heartache I can’t write down out of the respect for those hurt by it. I held it together for a while, grateful to be a ‘fly on the wall’ of sorts. I’d always known these women were strong, beautiful and brave. I just didn’t know how much so until that afternoon. Then, they started talking about her. My aunt, their other sister.
She was the one who didn’t make it. She was younger, raised by parents struggling with PTSD, addiction and self loathing after the wounds of war just wouldn’t heal. There was a recollection of a babysitting job gone wrong because of underage binge drinking. It turned into a night when that self loathing was masked by unbridled anger. That was the moment I wished we could’ve just pulled the car over and sob and hold each other for as long as we needed.
I prefer the memory of my insanely talented aunt to the one recalled on that day. Mine was on the morning of my wedding. She did my hair and made me feel so beautiful. It was her gift to make people feel lovely. Now, I wonder if she was ever allowed to feel that way about herself. She died a year and a half ago after a very long battle with addiction. In some ways, I consider her a victim of Vietnam.
It wasn’t all bad though. I know it wasn’t. There has to be some sort of nobility, somewhere, in sticking with a person as they confess to unspeakable offences inflicted upon the people they’ve injured. My grandmother did that. She bridged that gap and made sure those hurt were ready for the conversation.
Seeing my grandmother again brought back the love I will always feel for her. It brought back the pity too but also the love. It made me remember the good times when she was funny and told great stories. When we would laugh and make macabre jokes about our powdered dead grandma. Through all of this, one thing is abundantly clear: Drugs and addiction destroy a person from the inside out.
Perhaps if they weren’t a factor, my grandparents would’ve stayed on that island, by themselves, for just a little longer, just to have a story that would gross their kids out until they were older. Maybe, just maybe, when they realized their daughter was a teenaged alcoholic, they would have had the mental capacity to respond with love, courage and the determination to help her on her road to recovery.
It’s not all bad. Not really. Out of the ashes of the nuclear fallout that is being raised by parents who were almost always higher than kites, comes the Phoenix. The bird that rises out of those ashes strong enough to abandon that cycle of physical and emotional abuse, neglect and heartache to raise children and give them so many things they never had. That Phoenix is courageous enough to raise children on her own, if necessary, to protect them from predators. She is strong enough to fight and beat cancer and still be able to smile that stunning smile.
Some people believe the Phoenix is a myth. Not me. No way. They’re real. I know three of them. And in honor of Mother’s Day, I think of them and honor them every time I see the lilacs that are still blooming in my front yard.
Happy Mother’s Day to some of the bravest and most amazing mothers I am blessed to know.