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Archive for September, 2016

But since it falls unto my lot
That I should rise and you should not
I’ll gently rise and softly call
Good night and joy be with you all.

~The Parting Glass

My grandma is dying. There’s no way to write that sentence differently that will make it any better or easier. My grandma is dying. It’s time to say goodbye, but dear God, I don’t want to.

I wasn’t yet blogging when my other grandma, Grandma Ruth, died, almost seven years ago now, or when my grandfathers passed away, but I wish I had been.  It’s difficult to let someone go mentally and emotionally, especially when that person was so much a part of one’s life since it began. Writing helps me to alleviate a bit of that pain. I think grandparents hold a very special place in one’s life, something different than parents. If they’ve been loving grandparents, as I was fortunate enough to have, the loss is felt keenly. I don’t think it ever really goes away.

I’d written about this grandma, Grandma Ballantyne, the last grandparent I have left, a few years ago when she seemed to be taking a turn for the worse. Her memory, among other things, was rapidly declining, although she would try to fake you out if she couldn’t remember something.

“Of course”, she’d say when you asked her a question or tried to remind her of a person, or, “Well, that sounds about right.” It was clear that she knew she was supposed to understand who or what you were talking about, but she didn’t, and she didn’t want you to know that she was lost. It was heartbreaking. The last few months, though, she hasn’t spoken much, except to say, “I love you”. When I saw her last, on Saturday, she wasn’t speaking at all.

We’ve known for a while that Grandma has been declining, but even when she would forget where she was or she didn’t understand what was happening, there were still glimpses of her feisty self in there. Up until a year or so ago, I could still get her to smile when I would tease her about smuggling in some whiskey to the nursing home. We shared a liking for it and red wine, although I admit that these days, I enjoy sipping a nice Merlot a little more than a Jameson. Up until a couple of years ago, I would relay some irreverent message to her from Mr. Marty Man and she would still smile. They had always gotten along famously and she enjoyed his naughty sense of humor. He made her laugh. I love that she loved him so much.

Saturday afternoon, I was privileged to have some alone time with her, to tell her things that I absolutely had to say before she leaves us. Most of them are private, things that I will hold in my heart forever, but I will share one thing with you. I told her that she was my hero, that she always had been. When I said that, her eyes focused sharply on me and she squeezed my hand tightly. Say what you will, but maybe just for that moment, she knew me and heard what I said. That’s what I’m going to choose to believe, anyway.

Grandma was an amazing person to grow up with. She watched me frequently when I was little and when she didn’t have to watch me any more, she would have me over to spend the night, just because. She allowed me to pillage her closets and drawers, including her make-up drawer, and dress up in the most amazing outfits that a six-year-old could muster up. She had a long blonde wig that I was sure had to be the most perfect thing in the world and I festooned myself with it, tons of floaty scarves, and gobs of costume jewelry, convinced that I looked beautiful because she always told me so. She eventually gave me her tiara and black satin gloves that I adored. What little girl doesn’t love a sparkly crown? I still have them and will keep them forever.

I was a pretty solitary kid, for the most part, and she left me to my long hours of playing dress-up and pretend, letting me run a “bar” out of her kitchen and a beauty shop in her dining room. Lord knows that there was almost no limit to her patience as she taught me to cook French toast, pancakes, and smoky links. I still love smoky links, not so much for their taste, but just to remind me of those carefree days. Sometimes, we’d got to McDonalds for breakfast, a rare treat, and get pancakes and sausage in the old Styrofoam containers. She always made me drink orange juice, even though I hated it (I hate pulp) but I did it because it was Grandma, even though I gagged on it.

When the cousins came over and we all spent the night, Grandma would let us build huge blanket forts in the living room and we’d all sleep on the floor. If it was just my cousin, Erin, and me, as it sometimes was, we would sleep on the pullout couch in the back room, always with a cat or two, telling stories for as long as we could stay awake. She didn’t care how long we talked, knowing that we’d eventually drop off. It was a short walk from her bungalow in Allen Park to the corner store, Frances Market, to buy milk for dinner where the clerk always knew that we were “Jackie’s grand-kids” and would give us a long stick pretzel for the walk back. We were usually allowed to buy a candy bar, too. Hershey bars were a favorite, but so were the bubble gum cigarettes, loaded with powdered sugar that puffed like smoke. This was the eighties, remember. smoking was bad, but not too bad, yet.

She had a VCR before anyone else I knew and a camera to go along with it. Every band event, school play, and holiday was lovingly videotaped and labeled. My cousins and I wish that some of those videos would disappear, and maybe they have, but she was determined to record everything. She and Grandma Ruth were always in the audience of everything I ever did. Back then, it was expected. Now, it’s treasured. Just recently, I had the opportunity to appear on television. It happened to be the same day that I was going to drive down and visit her, so she was on my mind. Fifteen years ago, she would have been grilling me about when and what channel it would be so that she could set the VCR to record.

Grandma never told me that I couldn’t do something, or that I was silly for dreaming my dreams. She never worried about logistics. I wanted to go to college at Oxford? Why not? She thought I was brilliant. Veterinarian school, perhaps? Sure thing. I wanted to be a Rockette, just like in the movie Annie? Well, I needed to learn to dance, starting with the box step, so she taught me. I never felt stupid or ridiculous in her presence. No dream was too big, no movie star was unattainable for Grandma’s girl. (All four of us granddaughters were Grandma’s girls.) As I grew up, she treated me as if I were older than I was and talked to me about world affairs and life in general. When I started smoking real cigarettes, she knew about it before any other adult in my life (because I trusted her) and simply sat in the smoking section with me with no rebuke. With Grandma, I knew that my choices, even the bad ones, were my own and that she would respect them and me. She offered advice, but always in a way that made me think about things, to see both sides. I never once felt disrespected or tolerated by her. My thoughts and feelings mattered to her. I felt that; it’s one of the purest, truest feelings of my life.

When my kids were going to be born, she told everyone from the moment she found out. She was so proud to be a great-grandma, and a youngish one at that. I’m so glad that my boys had the chance to know her when they were small, before she began having strokes. She read them stories and played with them in the lake, just like she did with us when we were small. She has four children, nine grandchildren (including my two brothers who are not her biological grandchildren, but that didn’t matter one bit to her ), and twelve great-grandchildren. She loved us all, more than anything.

My grandma is dying. I hate this. I want her back. I want her putting me in the front basket of her bike, riding just down the street, just far enough to make me laugh with joy. I want to ride the bicycle built for two with her again. I want to ask her to read me Cinderella again and again and again, just like she used to until her voice was hoarse. I want her to rub my back until I fall asleep, safe and loved. I want to talk to her again, about boys and sex and love while I’m pretending to be sophisticated and grown-up. I still don’t feel grown-up sometimes. I didn’t visit as often as I should, life gets in the way, but I will regret not being there to visit as much.

I want her to rest. I want her to be at peace. I don’t want her to hurt or to be confused anymore.

My grandma is dying. She is loved.

I need to let her go.

 

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It’s been a long week. Crazy long. I had Monday off, but that didn’t really make a difference. Nothing in my normal schedule had changed much: work from 8:30-4:15, rehearsal from 7:00-whenever, so I was tired, but that’s not why it was long.

Have you ever noticed that bad things happen in clumps? It seems to go that way. This week, it was death.

For those who don’t know me well, I work for a church. Death is a part of the job. When someone passes away, I’m usually the first person that the family speaks with on the phone. The people who have died since I started the job in February have all been people who I didn’t know personally, so while it was a sad thing to make the arrangements, it didn’t affect me in a way that it would if I had known them. That changed last Friday when a dear lady gracefully succumbed to cancer. She had only been diagnosed a few months ago; she went fast and on her own terms. She was a force, a strong and lively personality who touched everyone around her. She will be missed.

This week, I also attended one of the saddest funerals I have ever been to. There were three of us there to bury the ashes: the pastor, my coworker, and me. That’s it. The deceased were a husband and wife with no children and no family close by. I won’t give more details, I didn’t know them and don’t think that they would appreciate me telling all I know, but it made me sad that we were the only ones there to lay them to rest. They should have had someone there who knew and loved them. We did our best, but I still felt like I was intruding on a moment that wasn’t mine.

Another lady, an elderly church member, also passed away this week. I didn’t know her, but it was heart-wrenching to talk with her daughter on the phone. Hearing someone else’s pain makes you appreciate the ones you love.

Our sweet neighborhood cat, Charlie, had to be put down this week. Charlie was an old man, I’m not sure how old, but it was more than 15 years. He was here when we moved in in 2001 and used to bring us “presents”: decapitated chipmunks, bird carcasses, etc. You know, gifts. He had a loving home two doors down with a wonderful family, but made it his business to wander the neighborhood, even walking through our house occasionally to visit. My kids grew up with him, we kept our own stash of kitty treats for him, and we loved him like our own, even when he ate one of the baby sparrows from the nest in our vent. He was the next best thing to having a cat of our own, he felt right at home in our yard. It’s better that he is at rest, he was hurting and sick, the time was right, but he leaves a hole in our hearts in this neighborhood.

And, finally, I found out yesterday morning that my great-aunt had passed away as well. Aunt Alma was a spunky little thing who probably weighed 80 pounds soaking wet. I saw her often when I was little, but until recently, I hadn’t seen her in several years. We had a great catch-up time about a year and a half ago when another great-aunt of mine died and then  we sat with her at my cousin, Kelly’s wedding last summer. Aunt Alma was the last of the old guard, that generation of my grandparents that is embedded in my memory with that Italian side of the family. She was married to my Great-Uncle John,  my grandpa’s brother, and she was an integral part of la famiglia: the family.

Aunt Alma was Italian, the same as Uncle John. They defied my great-grandmother, who had picked out another wife for him. Arranged marriages were common in Sicily, where they were from, but Aunt Alma and Uncle John were having none of it here in the United States. Their successful marriage was long and happy with children and grandchildren to fill their days. Aunt Alma had a good long life, but her death was quick and took us by surprise.

So, tomorrow, Monday, starts a new week. There will be a memorial service and a funeral, not to mention that I have rehearsals and a show opening on Friday night. It will be busy, but hopefully, there will be no deaths. I’ve had about all I can do this week.

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