When I was 14 years old, I became one of my grandmother’s caregivers. While watching "TRL" and discussing my day, I would change the bandages she had to wrap tightly (“but not too tight”) around her leg.
I would sit in the garage while she smoked her cigarettes and try to figure out ways to catch her or, at least, break her fall as she would randomly fall asleep while sitting in her chair.
I got very good at putting out cigarettes when she would fall asleep. I got even better at getting chewed out for putting out said cigarettes because she “wasn’t asleep that long.”
As her illnesses progressed, and a motley crew of cancer and other diseased cells continued taking up residence in her body, my role of caregiver increased. I became a skilled medication dispenser, following the directions on the bottle as she argued like a child over why she would not be taking that particular medicine on this particular day.
I became accustomed to calling 911 for hospital transport. At the end there wasn’t even a rush to grab her glasses anymore; they became a part of the hospital kit, the unofficial grab bag of information and clothing that accompanied each trip to the hospital.
The hospital visits began to occur with increasing frequency, each time requiring resuscitative measures and a longer and longer stay. Hospital waiting rooms and cafeterias became a mainstay in the life of my family. I think I can speak for us all when I say sleeping in a hospital chair is not something I look forward to doing ever again (but it is do-able).
Amidst it all, and perhaps because of it, I was afforded the opportunity to get to know my grandmother in a way that captured her entire life and painted her as more than just a grandmother.
I was able to see her as a full person, a woman with interests and passions and regrets. I was able to share everything with her without fear of judgment (even if she completely disagreed, I knew she loved me). She was the center of my world, and then all of a sudden, yet completely expectedly, she was gone.
That morning is forever entrenched in my memory. Thinking back on it, I can feel the breeze on my face as I stand in the front yard. The feeling of my knees giving out beneath me returns just as if I were back in that exact moment, experiencing it for the first time.
I miss her more than could ever possibly be measured, and there isn’t a day of my life that goes by without a thought of her. She was one of my people, and we don’t get very many of those.
I think back to our conversations, which often involved numerous fits of giggles, and, when she felt good, loud music and dancing. I think about the life she lived; I think about the sacrifices she made to maintain that life. I think about the tragedies she experienced, and I’m in awe of her perseverance and resistance. I’m also saddened she didn’t expect more.
My grandmother deserved only good things. She let small setbacks push her back entirely, and she was negative about how things would turn out.
I recently moved, and I know exactly how the conversation would have gone: “Oh, sh*t, sis, you don’t want to be that far away!” She was afraid of taking steps out on her own and that’s devastating to me in a way I could never tell her.
What I learned in the too short time I had with my grandmother has been the basis for my decisions ever since. I learned that life sucks (sometimes) and that you don’t know if there will be time later to make up for it.
I learned that if someone matters to you, you need to hold on to him or her. Distance can creep up on you so fast, you don’t even notice until that someone is too far gone. I learned that I’d rather try and fail than spend my life wondering what could have been.
I learned a lot of things that seem like such common sense, but aren't. I left graduate school because it wasn’t making me happy, and life is too short to spend waiting for that “right time” to make your move.
I’ve reached out to people more than I ever have before, and I actively try to stay connected. I say “I love you” more. I am creating a life that makes me happy because no one else is going to do it for me. I allow an urgency to my actions, to my day and to my life because life demands it.
I learned that there is no right time. Timing is an excuse; there will never be enough time for what you love so you might as well try. Let go of what doesn’t matter, what you won’t care about tomorrow, what doesn’t actively add substance to your life.
Hold the people who add something to your life close and work at maintaining that connection; that is what a relationship is: constant work at staying connected.
Learn who you are and make adjustments as necessary. Few things in life are set in stone, and everything can change in an instant. Live a life you are proud of, minimize the amount of regret you might accrue and apologize when you’re wrong. Eat chocolate and barbecue chips at the same time.
My grandmother was the first person I looked at when I was born. As the story goes, she said, “It’s a girl,” and I turned my head and looked at her, following the sound of her voice. I know (as does the family) that as a newborn, it’s unlikely I knew what I was doing in that moment, but I like to think I did.
I like to think she and I had a deal worked out before we came down to this life, that we were in it together.
My grandmother is gone, but I’m still learning from her, and I still feel her around sometimes. Life is funny; it doesn’t let you have things the way you want them, but it does tend to give you the things you need.