I was my grandparent’s first grandchild and I was unexpected. So, when my mother called home to tell her parents she was pregnant with me, my grandmother hung up the phone in shock. She quickly recovered and five minutes later, my mother’s phone rang. “Gramps here!” my grandfather exclaimed. From that moment on, my grandparents were excited to meet me. They flew to Arizona where I was born to welcome me into the world, and since the first day, my grandparents gave me love, affection, and support.
Growing up, every weekend my sister and I would beg our parents to let us stay with gramma and grampa. We had countless sleepovers and would get excited about midnight snacks and late-night TV. During the summers, we would spend a week in Up North Wisconsin with them. We celebrated every birthday and holiday together and they attended all of our concerts, musicals, and plays. My grandparents always made us feel like they were proud of us.
My grampa was whisker rubs and hunting, bear hugs and s’mores at a campfire. My gramma was finger paints and flowers, falling asleep to movies and home cooked meals. Above all else, my grandparents were love.
At home, life was chaotic and miserable. My father was an abusive alcoholic and my sister and I had to learn to survive in dire circumstances. My grandparents were the silver lining of a very dark cloud. They protected us, provided for us, and comforted us. They were the color in an otherwise bleak world.
Cancer came, saw, and conquered, taking my grampa’s life when I was fourteen years old. I was hit with grief, but he lived such a full, rich life, that I also celebrated. The town put the flag at half-mast to honor him. Over five hundred people attended his funeral. My grandfather was a legend to many but a hero to me.
Gramma handled her grief with poise and elegance. She never fell apart. By watching her continue to live her life, she taught me how to be strong.
When I was 16, my sister and I moved in with my gramma because we were not safe in our household. I spent my senior year of high school living with her. Our relationship changed. Suddenly, my gramma had to put her role on hold and act as a mother.
At the same time, I began to develop mental health issues. I didn’t tell my gramma that I was going to therapy for a long time because I was afraid that she would look down on me or judge me. When I told her that I was struggling, she just held me and said, “I wish it wasn’t so hard for you. I wish I could take away your pain.” When I was feeling hopeless, my gramma gave me hope.
Despite the dark days, we had a lot of good moments. We sat out on our porch every night, enjoying the sunset. One day, we passed the time day drinking and chain smoking. My gramma filled our home with laughter, joy, and warmth.
Then, my sweet, sassy gramma started to have trouble breathing and she was diagnosed with COPD. The next three years were painstakingly slow, but looking back on them, it is all a blur.
At first, she just slowed down a little, having to catch her breath every time she walked. Then she began to have breathing attacks where her lungs couldn’t hold enough oxygen. I promised her that I would stay with her and take care of her, the way she took care of me. Over time, she lost the ability to go for walks, to garden, and to drive. She lost 60 pounds and went from being a plump, joyous woman to becoming frail and anxious. I quit my job and caring for her became my life. I cooked, cleaned, ran errands, picked up prescriptions. Eventually I had to bathe her and take a blood sample every week. I tried my best to give her the care she deserved, and some days it was a battle living with mental illness.
Even though she was suffering, she still supported me in my struggle with mental health. I took care of her and she took care of me. We were allies, trying to survive our lives in different ways. One day I burst into tears and cried, “I don’t know what I am going to do without you!” and she held me, and said, “You are going to be ok. I will always be with you and I’ll still give you a kick in the ass when you need it!”
After three years of living with COPD, she became too tired to fight. In April of 2018, she passed away in her home, surrounded by family. I held her as she left this world, sobbing and shaking. Three years of taking care of her never prepared me for the feeling of loss. Suddenly, there was a hole where my heart was supposed to be.
For Christmas I had written her a letter, to tell her how much she meant to me. I didn’t expect a response, but she wrote me back a month later. I now have her words to carry with me every day. She wrote, “let go of the darkness of the past and look for the light, love will help you find your way and I know we will be together again someday.”
It has been four months since she passed, and the feeling of loss has not lessened. I feel emptiness in my heart, the longing of her touch, and the absence of her laughter. On the worst days, I look for her in the house and my heart shatters that she is not there. I have to reaffirm over and over again that she is gone.
For a long time, I dwelled on the pain in my life: a childhood riddled in abuse and trauma, the lack of love from my father, the unfairness of mental illness, and the losses that I have experienced. But looking through old photos, I saw the joy and love that my grandparents gave me. My gramma gave me the opportunity to live a better life. She provided me with a home when I wasn’t safe. She filled my life with love, encouragement, and hope. Even though my world is dark without her, I will listen to her words and look for the light.