“And then her heart changed, or at least she understood it; and the winter passed, and the sun shone upon her.”
―J.R.R. Tolkien, The Return of the King
Sitting for almost two hours in the waiting room of a local car dealership waiting for the oil of my husband’s car to be changed (best wife ever? Probably not, but close), I pretended to read and instead found myself listening as the other families in the room visited. Apparently they had been neighbors or friendly acquaintances at some point, and were catching up. One couple was past middle aged and each drank a cup of complimentary coffee (should have been champagne for as long as we all had to wait) and the other was a couple in their late thirties who had two children along with them, a very small girl who played with Duplos on the table, and the one I immediately fell in love with: a small baby boy in a onesie who looked remarkably like the CGI character of Golum/Smeagol in the Lord of the Rings films. Coming from me, this is a compliment. His lack of hair, wide eyes, large shaped dome and lower set ears captured my heart, and when he smiled, I couldn’t help but lower my book and grin back.
Listening about his and his sister’s story made my heart warm towards these strangers who earned blue collar wages and were adopting four children—brothers and sisters with these two now eating crackers included—whose autistic mother could not care for them. Health problems would haunt these children forever, and therefore medical bills would probably be catastrophic, especially for the baby, who at over one year old was the size of a baby half his age. As an adult, he’ll never grow taller than thirty-six inches.
These moments probably make people think grateful thoughts like, “Oh, be glad for what you have,” or “At least my life isn’t that bad.” But when the woman of the older couple commented, “What lucky children they are,” the mother responded without a beat, “We’re the lucky ones.”
The relationship between children and parents has grown in interest to me as I’ve aged. Not only are my own parents also growing older so my dependence has become less physical (the whole food, clothing, and shelter thing) and is more mental and emotional, but I watch my brother and his son interact with each other and I am amazed by how direct one can be with a three year old. But one relationship in particular has always intrigued me, and that is the one between my father and his mother. At the end of this year, my grandmother passed away, just a few days before Christmas.
Grandma Jean was always a fun and boisterous person whose eyes glistened with happiness and love whenever we would go visit her in Wisconsin at her house on the lake. She would worry about us going too close to the water, walking off into the nearby woods, or disappearing in some outlandish way—eaten by vultures, maybe. On one of her visits to our hometown while she watched us for the week, she took my sister and me to our local department store. We were eight or nine and headed directly for the toy section because, duh, toys were bomb, and not even two minutes later we heard our names being called over the loudspeaker to come to the front of the store. Grandma waited nervously by one of the registers, and it was all my sister and I could do to keep from shouting that we were fine. And we were pretty large kids for our age with ambitious ideas for fighting people off; in fact, we probably weren’t too far off the same size as Grandma Jean.
At about five foot, she wore a size six shoe, and I can remember being in my teens and her saying how cute was a pair of shoes I might be wearing. Then she’d ask what size they were, and when I’d tell her nine, her head would lift slightly with an amazed “Oh,” as if she’d never been more surprised. For me, Grandma was quick to laugh, easy to please, and always armed with a compliment. She could dance for hours, something I witnessed at my cousin’s wedding, and her low alto voice resonated in ears until the very end. Those happy times are immortalized in my mind, and those are how I will remember her.
I will cling to these memories not only because they mean a lot to me, but also because Grandma Jean suffered from depression and Alzheimer’s. As time went by, these memories, if she shared the same ones, were lost. The Alzheimer’s began much sooner than we realized, but the depression was present for a good portion of her 80 some years. Despite the happiness and happy memories I have, I know my grandmother suffered mentally for much of her life. After divorcing my grandfather, she clung to a close family friend and they married not long after. I also discovered that my grandmother claimed to have been raped as a child (I remember hearing as young as age three or as old as eleven—not that eleven is “old” by any means), and it was only in her eighties that she sought legal advice and help for this atrocity, long after the evil person had died. For awhile in my naïve teens, after I learned of my grandmother’s past, I wondered if she just refused to be happy. While married to my grandfather, the two of them square danced, and she was a talented caller. I like to think she had true joy then, while she was also raising her two sons. Music gave her joy throughout her life, so she would have blips of forgetting her depression, but her pride in her children all her life was unmatched.
I know now that happiness cannot be forced onto people, and sometimes trying to lead them to it is like walking in a pitch black labyrinth with no way out. The one light that shined in my grandmother’s life was her family, her sons. Though the prefacing quote describes Éowyn, a strong-willed female character in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, I also think it applies to my grandmother. There were moments when the clouds would pass and her heart understood happiness and her face would warm with a smile. On one of my father’s many visits to see her since moving to a nursing home over five hours away this last year, though she knew few other faces, she looked at him and said with sincerity, “You’re my son.”
As far as I know, Grandma had forgotten her past, the dark and the light, and she lived in the now. Her days were spent on routine, but sometimes that routine was interrupted by her brain, lost and confused, and she fell several times. I was able to visit her about five or six months before she died. She came shuffling out of the bathroom, kicking her feet in a little dance and shrugging her shoulders, something she’d done a lot when I was young. For a moment, I thought she knew me, but when I hugged her and pulled away, there was no recognition in her small bluish green eyes. Though she wasn’t quite sure who I was, she liked to hear about me. She saw a picture of my sister in her wedding dress (a wedding she was unable to attend because of her health), and said, “Beautiful.” She liked the flowers on the table outside the nursing home.
It was difficult to leave on that last visit. I honestly didn’t think it would be the last one, but time makes fools of us all. I don’t feel as if I’ve said goodbye to the woman who had such a powerful impact on my life, and I don’t know if I ever will. Maybe I don’t need to say it.
Parents may think they’re lucky, but I realize now that luck has nothing to do with it. Love, not luck, changes us, and it shapes us. Sometimes, the good shapes are hard to find, but Grandma Jean was one of them. Despite her past and depression, she raised two wonderful boys who grew into caring, loving husbands who also became caring, loving dads–one such dad who kept his own children from learning such evils could happen to children so young. Such atrocities weren’t fathomable in our family even though hate, anger, and sadness secretly raged in someone we loved. Because of her, I know that courage is not something that dies and disappears; it is something we must use and live with everyday, even if that means putting others before ourselves. My father is direct proof of this. Many may not see it or guess it from the woman they remember or the choices she made, but the most significant of sacrifices can easily go overlooked. The greatest of these being love.