Lessons from Grandma (AKA, Newsflash: You’re Not the Center of the Universe!)

Last night, my grandma passed away.

For those of you who have been following along, this is my second great loss in 2013 (my mother, and best friend, died in July). Obviously, it’s been a difficult year for myself and my family. I haven’t written anything new for the occasion. If I did, I’d undoubtedly regale you with memories of museum visits, egg sandwiches, long walks and being spoiled to no end. And speaking of “no end,” that’s a perfect way to characterize the patience with my grandmother played “Sorry!” the board game with us, over and over and over. And over.

But this isn’t about that. This is a piece I wrote, about a year ago (November 2012), when I heard that my grandma had taken a turn. I was on the Peter Pan bus on the way to the hospital, feeling desperate — for the first time, fully aware of time and its inherent finitude. There was so much I wanted to ask her, and uncover about her past and our family. Unfortunately, she never grew strong again. I never was able to ask her all of my questions. But I’ll tell you what I was able to do: slow down.

I finally stopped running from country to country, life to life, looking for my great new adventure. I spent more time with my family, and less time thinking about myself. I bailed on moving to Buenos Aires with a friend (sorry Laura — but you know it was worth it!) and instead put time in at home.

I took a more patient tone with my mother, and apologized every time I failed. I listened a little bit more intently and said “I love you” at every opportunity. For the first time in my life, I was present.

And I am so incredibly thankful for that.

Grandma may never have been able to get oversized-flannel-and-ripped-jeans-8-year-old me to see the importance of table etiquette for all of the future dinner parties I’d be attending (“WHO still goes to dinner parties, Grandma?!” “You will, one day.” “Sounds boring — I will never care about this stuff!” I declared. Funny thing is, nowadays, dinner parties are just about my favorite thing. Oops!). But, practically on her deathbed, she was able to teach self-involved-26-year-old me this valuable lesson:

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Yesterday, I got the text I dreaded, “Your grandma has taken a turn for the worst. Your father is heading to the hospital now. I will let you know as soon as I know more.”

No. It’s far too soon for this. Only weeks ago, we lovingly spoke on the phone, with our ceremonious familiarity; her, totally lucid and reasonably healthy. Sure, she had her complaints; Parkinson’s has certainly taken its toll on her demeanor. She moves slower, sleeps longer and vocalizes her ailments more readily. But she’s not this — paranoid, disabled, hooked up to machines. She’s not failing. She can’t be failing. She can’t be losing her will. How could this have happened so quickly?

How could I not have been there more?

I had so many questions for her. It was only last Spring that I realized that this woman has lived a full life – grown up, gone to college, traveled the world, married, birthed (times three!), endured abuse, divorced, built a career path in a time when it was unheard of for a woman to do so, remarried… and undoubtedly a million things in between. And yet I had never seen her as anything other than my grandmother – a vessel for my love, stories and triumphs. She never missed one big event – she was at every graduation, every championship basketball game, every show. She even bothered to witness some of my minor achievements; choir concerts and art shows… supporting me in hobbies she knew deep down inside I’d never keep. My grandma let me shine, and she shined for me. She let it be about me, and I was happy with that relationship.

But now I’m getting older and realizing more and more that the world does not revolve around the young. We cater to the young, to be sure. But they are not the immensely interesting set – with their fumbling through life, trying desperately to figure out how to be extraordinary, surrounded by screaming peers trying to do the same. Who was I to take all of the attention and to never ask, “Grandma, what was it like when you went to college?” Selfish, selfish, selfish.

Now I want to know, and I want to know everything. In all of the years in my relationship with my grandmother, who was essentially the only grandparent I had growing up (after the age of 8), my best day with her was the day I finally asked her about her life. We were walking around West Hartford Center, choosing a place for lunch, and she was telling me a story from being young and having far too much control over her mother’s decisions. That was the moment it dawned on me that I really knew nothing about this woman. I knew my father’s history, vaguely. But I had never thought to ask my grandmother about the world that she knew. So I asked, timidly at first. As the stories began to roll, I asked, and I asked, carefully unraveling my fascination and adoration. I even told her, “I really don’t know anything about your life, Grandma.”

“You just have to ask.”

We spent the day talking, sorting through her attic, going through old photographs and documents, and getting to know each other as adults.

If she never speaks another lucid sentence, I will always have that day to cherish. That one day where I stepped outside my own selfishness and let my grandma shine, for once.

I want to give her more of those days. I want to fill her life with those days. As her health fades and her will is tested, I want her to feel loved and cared for and valued, not as a vessel, but as a full person.

I hope with every fiber in my being that I will have the chance to give that to my grandma, and frankly, to myself. If I am to preserve our family’s history, as I’ve set out to do, I need to know hers. She is the last living link to our Holocaust story. That is not what it is important right now, and I logically know this . . . but the weight of my waiting is so heavy I can hardly stand it.

No more waiting. The time is now and I know what I have to do. I am on a bus to CT and I am going straight to the hospital to see her. To tell her I love her. To tell her I want to know more about her, and to ask her if she wouldn’t mind sharing (if she’s feeling up to it). I will sit next to my beautiful, incomparably strong grandmother, lying in her hospital bed, and I will listen, to the woman who listened to me my whole life; the woman who asked for nothing more than an occasional visit or phone call, the woman who always showed up and was always proud…

I will let go of all of these words, and I will listen. 

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Rest in Peace, Barbara Clark. Jan 15 1929 – Dec 19 2013.

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2 thoughts on “Lessons from Grandma (AKA, Newsflash: You’re Not the Center of the Universe!)

  1. ” I believe we have two lives: the one we learn with, and the one we live with after that ” This is a quote from the movie The Natural. When I first heard this quote a great ( it was for me) insight into how I and others really come. to be who they are. Your post reminded me of this quote and how you changed based on the lessons life teaches us all.

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