It’s hard to be an adult sometimes. It’s hard to be a person sometimes. There are rough lessons that everyone on the planet has to learn, but they’re always personal. Loss, change, grief, there isn’t really any universality for this stuff. We all go through it, but we all go through it so differently — at different times, in different places, under different circumstances, and always with different hearts.
My great-grandmother is very sick. I’ve known it for a long time, really; her care was handed over to my great-aunt and my grandmother years ago. I have about a million false starts saved up, but every time I try to write about this… I don’t know. I just don’t know. Everything I say disintegrates.
We all have hard lessons to learn, right? I don’t know what my lesson is here. My great-grandmother, my Grammy, is the person who taught me my first round of lessons. Big ones, little ones, it didn’t matter. She taught me how to keep a garden, that it’s important to wear proper foundation garments, and that writing would take me everywhere. She wrote me a letter when I was seven and confusing my stories with reality — the first line was, “Oh, what a tangled web we weave…” I’d never heard that particular aphorism before, and her letter helped it make sense: Don’t lie, because eventually your sin will find you out, and you will feel like an ass.
She taught me other things too: Take care with your thoughts, because they become actions. If you’re going to eat, learn how to cook and eat things that are good. Brush your teeth twice a day and make sure you get to the dentist every six months. I’ve never had a cavity or eaten a Pop-Tart; both are because of her. I don’t own any hot pants but I do own three half-slips because of her. She taught me to change the bed linens every week and tried to teach me to wash the dishes after every meal.
She played games with me when I couldn’t sleep. I’d spend the night at her house and find her in her red rocker in the living room at three in the morning. She’d get me a glass of milk and a pillow, and I’d lie on the floor playing this poetry game she made up — she’d quote a couple of lines of a nursery rhyme, then I’d have ten seconds to come up with another that began with the word hers ended on. She’d snap out, “Adverb!” and I’d have three seconds to say, “Brightly!” She’d give me words to spell, sometimes paging through her ancient dictionary to find the best ones, the ones she knew I’d sink my teeth right into. She would do this as long as it took until I could sleep.
When we washed dishes together, she helped me make up a story about how each dish was a star that we had to polish for its nightly appearance. She didn’t tell me, “I know washing dishes is boring, but it’s not supposed to be fun.” She told me, “I know washing dishes is boring but it doesn’t have to be,” and that is a lesson I have carried with me forever.
I don’t even know where I’m going with this. Every time I try to address the immediate issues — Alzheimer’s, bad falls, body failing — I get mired in all this other stuff. False starts. There is so much to remember and I just feel like I have to. She can’t anymore. She is the sharpest woman, just the smartest and strongest woman I’ve ever met in my life, and she can’t even remember where she is most of the time. She was always the most capable person in my life, able to pay the bills and keep the garden and run her home and build sandboxes and can her own tomatoes, and now she’s in a nursing home. On the dementia unit.
When I was ten, I was dead set on having a cool backpack. Sometimes when you’re poor and a kid, you get fixated on really strange things. Like it won’t matter that your clothes are from last year’s sale rack at Wal-Mart if you just have a really cool bag for your books. Grammy took me all over town to find the right thing, and I finally settled on a Winnie the Pooh something-or-other. I didn’t even like Pooh, but all the other girls did, so you know how it was. Gram asked me over and over if I wouldn’t like something else, something sturdier, something a little less babyish, but I insisted on that stupid bag. When we got to checkout, the girl at the counter started pulling the wads of paper from the bag’s outer pockets and came up with two stashed bottles of nailpolish. I hadn’t put them there, but the look my grandmother gave me… I couldn’t bear it. I could not stand her disappointment, I could not stand the fact that she quietly paid for the bag even though she thought I’d done that. I get that same feeling every time I screw up; my first thought is, Oh, God, what would Gram think?
And it makes me a better person. I’ve never been steered wrong by my grandmother. I’ve never been let down by her. This woman who loved me, this tower of strength is going to leave me very soon. She’s already halfway gone, really, and I just wish I knew for sure that she wanted to go. The Grammy I know, though, wouldn’t want to go. This is just so fucking hard, and I don’t know what I’m supposed to take away from it — is it even appropriate to be looking for a lesson in something so awful? She’s 94 years old, my hero, and declining in a truly awful way; is it right for me to be looking for any kind of lining to this cloud?
I don’t know, I don’t know. I hate the saccharine in the voices of my family when they speak of or to Gram. I hate that she’s in a home in Colorado, receiving wonderful care, but also where I can’t get to her. Go for a visit. Help with the garden. Something. I hate knowing that she doesn’t notice, doesn’t need. There’s just nothing I can do, and I’m going to miss her so godawfully. Some lesson.