when my grandmother was ill, it was fairly alarmingly fast. she just didn't wake up easily one day, which led to an extended hospitalization and tests and one diagnosis that didn't seem to answer any questions and then discharge to a rehab facility and then, when it became clear that she was not recovering quickly, choosing an extended care facility from which she never returned. her decline was sudden, sharp, dramatic, but still filled with hope.
i don't think we ever really lost hope.
and in the last six weeks or so of her life, i got to be there, to hold her hand and comb her hair and take her to PT and try to work with her so that she would work harder, because back then we thought that she was depressed and not afflicted with dementia and all manner of other things that made everything about her experience incredibly frightening and paralyzing.
on the last day when i saw her conscious, she thought i was my cousin, who had graduated from high school that day. but the light in her eyes, that was pure. that was real. i knew that it was love, and i didn't care that it didn't have my name attached to it. i knew it was for me.
on the day that she had her final stroke, before they gave her the medication that calmed her down and put her into a three-day coma from which she never awoke, she squeezed my hand over and over again and i knew that she knew that i was there, that i loved her, that we loved her, that we were a family that would go on forever. i knew that, even if she was in pain, she knew that she was loved. i just kept telling her that it was okay, that we were there, that we loved her. my mom and aunt were talking to doctors, who diagnosed her with just about everything imaginable. but me and her--we were together. she couldn't talk. she couldn't even open her eyes. but i knew she knew me and i knew she knew that i was there.
these memories to me are precious. she was gone so soon, but these memories to me are precious. she went the way she lived: full of fight, full of love, full of light and legacy.
i think a family is an organic thing. i think it changes and adapts to the circumstances that surround it. i think it opens, in the best of cases, to include the new and develops, in the strongest of cases, nearly impenetrable ties to the ones who were always there, to ensure that all are strongly wrapped in its embrace.
but i also think sometimes it does the opposite, despite the desires and dedicated actions of those who build it. i think, sometimes, a family begins to fracture, to split, sometimes because of the actions of one. one who, perhaps, doesn't really believe in family the way the others do. one who, perhaps, doesn't understand how actions create long-lasting consequences. one who, perhaps, believes that he would be better off, in some ways, without said family. one who should, for all intents and purposes, be leading it.
several weeks after my grandma left this phase of her life, it began to dawn on us that maybe my grandpa would be one of those people. that, perhaps, he didn't define family the way that we did. that, perhaps, his choices would not work to build on what he and my grandma had created, but would start to eat away at it--if we let it.
i don't say this to criticize. i am saying this to mourn what i think i thought would have been. it's been almost six years since she's been gone. to see someone slowly, but surely, begin to chip away at what seemed to be a solid core is tough. tougher on those who see it every day than on me, who is distanced by geography and circumstance. but it's still the harder split than the one we experienced with my Mimi. it's slower, it's more tragic, it's infinitely less understandable than the ebb and flow of human existence. it's complicated. it's painful. it's still ultimately unstoppable, really.
it's a death--but it's a different kind of slower death.
because, really, you cannot believe that all people have the freedom to make choices and then not honor their ability to do so, even if those choices make no sense whatsoever.
sometimes i think the thing you bury, in these situations, is your idea of what family is and how it is defined. perhaps family is really defined by those who choose to be a part of it. perhaps family is really defined by the service that you render to those who surround you.
my grandma worked really hard to build our family. i don't think there was a Christmas program or a school function or a birthday or a holiday or a day off of school, until we moved two hours away, that didn't involve her and my granddaddy.
she used to clip little things out of the newspaper for me as i started teaching, little cartoons that she knew that i would like, little notices about my college, things that she saw and thought of me.
when i was little, she used to crochet. she made me a pink and white afghan for my bedroom when i was about 9 or 10, when pink was it, and i still love it to this day. when i go home to my mom's house, and it's cold, and i see that blanket, i think of her. we made Christmas ornaments one year as a project to keep me busy during school break. i still have a bag of them. i think of her every time i see them, and i remember not only that we made them, but that she taught me how to make them. every time i use a sewing machine, i think of the lessons she taught me about double stitching and putting the needle down and catching the bobbin.
i have an old tin measuring cup of hers in my kitchen. i will never get rid of it.
she had a associative way of remembering the dates of anniversaries and birthdays in our family. it was always so important for her to never miss any of them. i was laughing with my mom about it the other day, and i realized how very important it must have been to her if she had made a game of it. that speaks volumes about what was important to her.
she built a legacy of memories through her efforts. she was just her. she wasn't trying to be anything else. she was never rich or esteemed in the eyes of the world, but she built a family that loves her still and will love her always.
that's family right there. that's how i define it. it's the everyday efforts of mundane living. it's taking the time to clip out a cartoon that you think reminds you of someone. it's picking up the phone to say hi. it's teaching someone something new because you think, hey, maybe it's a good idea. it's sharing your talents and the substance of who you are until you're not sure you have anything left to give unless you look up and look around and see what you have built with your own two hands and your gift of love. then, suddenly, there's more of you than you could ever imagine.
there's more of her than she could ever imagine in our family. and there's about to be more, because we're naming my daughter after both of our grandmothers. not because we want our girl to be just like them, but because we want her to know that she has a legacy of love looking after her from all sides of this life, and that she has the capacity to be anything she wants to be, just by being her.
and because we want her to know what family is, the truest sense of family, we're starting with her name.