Last Mother’s Day I wrote a venomous post about how I absolutely loathe this holiday. This year, I have more reason than ever to hate it; however, instead of writing another scathing post, as I believe anger often hurts the one feeling the emotion rather than those who are targeted by it, I decided to write about something ultimately way more important than hatred – and that would be love.
I’m sure I have alluded more than once to the fact that I was raised by my mother and grandparents. These titles given based on relation are often not accurate to my experiences. My grandmother has been and will always be my true mother. I believe that owning the title “mom” or “dad” takes far more than creating a child. A parent’s duty is to guide to their child, to be their safe house, and their foundation. A parent is a teacher and above all, a being who radiates love. When I think of all that I personally think being a mother encompasses, that title is bestowed upon my grandmother. That being said, I still call her grandma, even though often times, even now in my 20’s, an occasional “mom” does slip out.
My grandmother was a stay at home mother since she had her only child, my mother. In an unexpected turn of events, my grandmother continued to be a stay at home mother as she raised my two older siblings and I. She was the one who woke us up for school, made all of our meals, bathed us, helped us with homework, and so on. Anything that had to or could be done, she did it. She never stopped, even after she flew through the windshield of a car after being hit in a crosswalk. After multiple surgeries and eight months of hospitalization, it seemed that the near death experience wasn’t much more than a minor obstacle that she defied. Put simply, my grandma is seriously badass.
She also was our protector. Nearly all my family members have severe anger issues that were often taken out on my siblings and I, yet I never remember my grandmother raising her voice at me. Not once. That’s impressive, considering at least at some point I was a real asshole, if not a young one. While our other parental figures had us walking on eggshells every day to the point of traumatic paranoia and fear, my grandmother’s sweet, Austrian accented voice felt instantly like being wrapped in a soft, warm blanket. Naturally there were times when she disciplined me, but rather using anger or violence, she was the only parent I had to use understanding, reason and compassion. I regarded her as my Guardian Angel, and I still do.
Growing up, my grandmother told me that when my siblings and I were first born, every time she received a new grandchild she set out to spoil them for fear that they would not love her. As I have spent the last 25 years getting to know her, I cannot help but think, “who in the world would not absolutely adore this woman?” To think she thought I could have ever hated her is impossible for me to comprehend. I remember being very small and her bouncing me on her knee and she sang to me. One song she loved the most was “You Are My Sunshine,” a song covered dozens of times by an array of musicians. She taught me to sing the song with her, and despite it being a rather unhappy song, when I hear it or sing it, my grandmother’s voice gently sings along in my head, brightening my life. I remember her singing it as she bathed me, cooked, cleaned, and walked me to school, and every time, it made me love her more.
Through all of this, my heart is breaking more and more each day. At 91 years old, while still in relatively good health, my grandmother has began to suffer from Alzheimer’s Disease. For those of you who are not aware, The Alzheimer’s Foundation describes it as:
…the most common form of dementia, a general term for memory loss and other intellectual abilities serious enough to interfere with daily life. Alzheimer’s disease accounts for 60 to 80 percent of dementia cases.
About three years ago my grandmother began to forget little things here and there, but would be able to recover the information quickly. As time passed, she forgot more often and more memories were lost to her, then her ability to recover them weakened. She often told me, “My brain is broken, I’m getting old.” She soon forgot that I was chronically ill, that I now live in Missouri, how to cook all of her amazing food we were brought up on, and this year, she forgot that for the first thirteen years of my life, I lived in her home as she raised me like I was her own daughter.
Alzheimer’s is an evil disease and navigating it, for both the sufferer and those who love them, is a battle. Every year my grandparents would call me early in the morning and sing happy birthday to me; the last three years neither of them remembered. This year, my grandfather has passed away and my grandmother is at her lowest point of memory loss yet. Alzheimer’s has made my grandmother less herself and has stolen away her ability to cope with the loss of my grandfather. When I visited last month, after my grandfather passed, for the first time in 25 years my grandmother yelled at me and refused to hug me. She was staying at my mother’s home for a few days and was desperate to go back to her own home, which we could not allow because she can no longer be alone. Her refusing my hug was like a bullet to my chest, and as I left the driveway, her eyes glaring angrily at me from the door of the house, the only solace I could find was in telling myself that it was her disease that caused her to hate me, and not her true self.
Every day, I have told my grandmother how much I love her and how grateful I am to her for all she has given to me. She was often the only one to keep me moving forward and the only one to keep my dysfunctional family together. From childhood onward, my greatest fear has been to lose her. I was very vocal about this; most nights as she tucked me in bed, I would tell her, “grandma, I am so afraid I am going to lose you.” Her response was always the same- “I’ll be at your wedding.” I am not sure when I am getting married, and don’t have any immediate plans for it, but while I have always wished for her to be there, I don’t think she is going to make it, which is a fact I have never wanted to admit.
Since moving to Missouri ten months ago I have visited California twice, both on an emergency basis. Leaving my grandmother to return to my new home in the Midwest was unbearable, and I tried everything I could to think of a way to go back to her. My grandmother sacrificed the majority of her life for my family, and I am ridden with guilt and shame that I cannot do the same for her. The fact is, anyway I look at it, even if I were to move back to live with her, I am not mentally, physically, or intellectually equipped to give her proper care. I spoke with caregivers who told me that watching anyone deteriorate mentally is heart-wrenching, but to watch someone you love fall apart will destroy a person completely. Especially because I myself am chronically ill, while many encouraged me to go back to California for her, it was not the right decision.
Before I moved I told my grandmother I was leaving and the reasons that had driven me to the final decision. She was saddened, but she took my hand and told me, “I wish you could stay here, but I have lived my life, and you’re just starting yours.” Though her compassion and reason are now overruled by the chaos of Alzheimer’s, I try to remember that she really does support me, and doesn’t resent me for leaving as much as I often resent myself.
During one of the most recent calls I had with her, she told me, “I don’t know who I belong with or where I am supposed to go. I’m lost.” Trying to prevent the tears stinging my eyes from letting loose, my immediate response was, “you belong with me. Where ever I am, you belong with me, in my heart, and don’t ever forget that.” I don’t know if this brought any ease to her suffering, but I hope that even if she can’t remember, at least for a second, she felt even a fraction of the love that she has always poured over me.
My grandmother will never read this, but I feel a dire need to say this anyway:
Grandma, I love you, and you are what has taught me love and compassion. You are my heroine, my guiding light, and “thank you” does not even begin to describe my gratitude. You will always be my driving force and the flame in my soul that gives me hope. Even if you don’t remember that you raised me, I do, and I will never forget that you are the best mother I could have ever hoped for, through all the joy and all the pain.
Happy Mother’s Day.
You are my sunshine, my only sunshine,
You make me happy, when skies are gray.
You’ll never know dear, how much I love you.
Please don’t take my sunshine away.
~You Are my Sunshine – (I can’t seem to find the extremely old version my grandparents used to listen to, but this version is from O Brother, Where Art Thou, one of my favorite films).