Friday, September 24, 2004

Helen and Em

Now that September is almost over, I realize that my grandparents' birthdays have come and gone with little attention. When they died, almost 2 years ago for my grandmother and a year and a half for my grandfather, I felt almost too overwhelmed with new motherhood to grieve properly. Sean took up so much of my waking time (and time during the night that I would otherwise have spent sleeping or perhaps reflecting) that I couldn't focus enough attention on my emotions about losing them.

A lot of time has passed, and I still feel the same way.

So many of my memories of my grandparents are tainted somewhat by the sadness that pervaded the last few years of their lives. Watching the slow decay of their independence and vitality was almost too much to bear sometimes. And if watching it was difficult, I can't comprehend the devastation they felt experiencing it.

My grandmother's physical health had long been precarious, and in the last few years her mental capacity diminished as well. She alternated between moments of lucidity and increasingly longer stretches of confusion. She struggled through amputation of both her legs, only later to forget that she no longer had legs. I could never bring myself to tell her no when she asked me to bring her shoes. Making the bouts of physical and psychic pain even harder was her inability to understand why she just couldn't go home. If they no longer had their apartment, couldn't my grandfather just get them a different one? Like the ones across from St. Peter's Church?

Whenever nurses behaved callously toward her, I wanted to shake them. All they saw was Helen, a helpless, confused, sometimes demanding old woman who needed to have her diaper changed yet again. They knew nothing about Helen, my grandmother: how funny and strong she had always been, how hopeful she could be no matter the situation, how insightful and wise she was in her counsel. They didn't know that her first words to my grandfather were "What the hell are you looking at?" They didn't know that she faced crippling bouts of anxiety and depression throughout her life. That she and my grandfather were lively and fun, that they had a vibrant social life for a long time. That she cooked a multi-part dinner every night until she was almost 90 years old (and nothing so simple as spaghetti—we're talking meat, potatoes, two vegetables, salad, bread, and dessert). That her daughter and granddaughters were completely and utterly devoted to her.

My grandfather, always strong physically and mentally, bore an even greater burden at times as he witnessed his wife's decline. He never gracefully accepted moving to the nursing home. Till his last days he was bitter and angry at everyone, especially my mother for, as he saw it, "putting him in this place". And he was so despondent that my grandmother bore little resemblance to the woman he had been married to for 67 years.

Visiting my grandfather at times required a mustering of will, for you had to brace yourself against an onslaught of vitriol: the food, the staff, his roommate, the other patients, his wife, the television in his room—he considered them all unbearable and minced no words in his condemnation of the entire situation. The conversation would wend its way to its inevitable conclusion, which went something like this, "And your mother, she just packed up all our stuff and put me here." When Kathie and I would defend our mother, he'd refuse to concede a single point. I think his anger sustained him for a long time.

I just re-read the above paragraph, and it reinforces the point I made earlier. I'm still consumed by the recent past. It troubles me that I have to dig a little deeper to find the sweet memories.

I want my kids to know my grandfather the way he was before everything soured. I want them to know he was a charming, garrulous storyteller. I want them to know that the same man who could be gruff and dismissive at times would weep over a movie on TV. And that the first time he held Sean, he cried.

I look forward to sharing some of my fondest memories with them: How he spent hours playing checkers and dominoes with me. How he would park his car in front of my house and begin calling mother's name from the curb. How, when Jeff and I arrived at my grandparents' apartment at 8:00 in the morning on our way to apply for our marriage license, we found him dressed to the nines in a sport coat and tie, so seriously did he take the responsibility of being our witness. How he could steer any conversation toward his favorite topic, cars, by asking Jeff, "How's that buggy of yours?" I want them to know about his devotion to my grandmother and her devotion to him. To know that he chauffeured her to and from Mass every week, yet each time declined her offer to join her inside the church. Every week!

I'm cheered a little by knowing that as Sean and Allie grow older, I will be able to keep my grandparents' memory alive for another generation.

Happy belated birthday, Nana and Pop-Pop. I miss you both so much.