I feel incredibly lucky to be able to say that I didn’t lose my first grandparent, my mom’s dear dad, until I was 25 years old. Not many people can say that. And I didn’t just have grandparents that were still alive, but I had them in my life, nearby. Nearby enough, anyway. My entire life my grandparents have lived an hour away from me and five minutes from each other, so sure I didn’t see them every week and maybe not even every month, but they were there, especially when it counted.
I know how lucky I am.
Still, I am incredibly saddened that two years later I’ve lost another one. My Grandma. My dad’s mom. My proper, quirky, practical, stoic, thrifty, particular, gem of a grandma.
As a kid, it’s hard to understand what a chronic illness is. Terms like autoimmune disease and arthritis don’t hold much meaning. What you are able to understand is that between your grandma and your grandpa, your grandpa is “the fun one.” He’s the one who takes you out for long walks on the beach in front of their house and builds forts with you out of driftwood. He’s the one who teaches you to play croquet on the grass. He’s the one who makes silly jokes. Your grandma spends a lot of time sitting in her chair.
And as a kid, what you are able to understand, is that between your two grandmothers, your grandma and your grandmere, your grandma is harder to relate to. She cares more about manners and is more set in her ways. She’s the one who, when you’re eight years old and lying on the floor in a long old-fashioned dress-up skirt, tells you the importance of being ladylike and sitting properly. She shows less emotion and is more stoic, so you never really know what she is thinking or feeling. A blend of how she was raised, a childhood on the farm, and her generation.
She is also thrifty. Very thrifty. She volunteers in a thrift shop, after all. The Thrift Shop, as you grow up calling it. Most of what you wore in your early years when your parents didn’t have much money came from your grandma through The Thrift Shop. And most of your family’s housewares. And this thriftiness combined with her quirkiness always makes for really interesting gifts from The Thrift Shop. Like the Christmas morning you open up a plush cat with masking tape on the paw reading “press here” that when you press it the cat meows calmly for 15 or so seconds before screech-meowing while the whole cat starts shaking, a feature which startles you so much that you throw the cat out of your hands. Your grandma is also completely taken with the idea of free toys and games in cereal boxes, and so she buys cereal just for the Tony the Tiger watch or the computer game inside. These freebies show up as part of birthday and Christmas gifts. You aren’t always sure what to make of your grandma’s gifts but by golly you always phone her to thank her, because that is the kind of thing that is very important to her. You do the same after every Valentine’s Day card and Easter card and birthday card, always with a $35.00 cheque inside.
As a kid, you love your grandma and you know that she loves you, too, but you also under-appreciate her in the way that most kids do their parents and grandparents.
And then you’re not a kid anymore.
You’re an adult now, and you get sick and your life falls apart. And you all of a sudden find yourself far less busy and scheduled because of the whole being too sick to do much of anything thing, so you make more of an effort to keep in touch with your grandparents. Your grandma has email now, and an enthusiasm for email joke and cartoon forwards like none other, so you start emailing your grandma.
And as an adult, now that chronic illness, autoimmune disease and arthritis are no longer just medical terms but the terms written in your own medical chart, you start to see your grandma differently. You know why you have so many memories of her sitting in her chair. You recognize how much pain and fatigue she must have been in all the time. You are able to see how important spending time with you and your siblings and cousins was to her because of the effort it must have taken her to just be present. You start to understand her in a way you wouldn’t be able to without that shared experience of living in a body that doesn’t follow the rules.
And you come to understand that she is able to understand you in a way that so many people just can’t.
You know how important education is to your grandparents. Higher education is part of the culture of that side of your family. You know that before she was married she studied to be a PT/OT. Then there’s your grandpa the dentist. Your uncle with the physics PhD. Your other uncle the doctor. Your dad with a master’s in engineering. Your siblings and cousins all with their degrees. And because education is so important to them, you know that when each of your siblings and cousins finished their degrees your grandparents gave them $1000 as a congratulations.
Then one day you get mail from your grandma and it’s a certificate she drew up herself congratulating you on graduating from The School of Hard Knocks. With a $1000 cheque. Because your grandma just gets it. Because she lives it herself.
When it comes to her own health your grandma is quite stoic. She doesn’t complain. You remember your grandpa, your mom’s dad, always telling you about running into her in the grocery store and how she would always give the same answers after he asked her how she was doing…”oh you know, I’m fine”…”well now, I’m okay” and you realize that you have the same go-to answers.
Over time your grandma lets down her guard more and more in her emails. She talks about pain and frustrations and sadness and challenges. You swap doctor and hospital stories. You know she got sick in an era when talking about being sick wasn’t as accepted as it is today. There were no online support groups and she didn’t have all the information at her fingertips like you have to learn as much as you do about what’s going on in your body. You feel sad for the isolation and loneliness she probably experienced because of her health. You wonder what treatments would be available for her if she got sick today. But most of all you feel privileged to be on the receiving end of whatever it is she tells you.
She ends every email by wishing and hoping you have better health coming and you just know how genuinely she means it. But she doesn’t need or expect positive health updates from you for the sake of making her feel better about what’s happening to you. She is one of the few people in your life who you don’t need to perform for.
Your grandma is still your grandma but now she is also your friend.
When your grandparents are in the process of moving out of the house they’ve been in for forty years, a very involved process because in your grandma’s own words it would make for a good episode of hoarders, you get an email from your grandma about her childhood doll. It’s falling apart but it’s really special to her and a mother of three boys, she wants you to have it. It’s important to her that this doll be loved. You promise to love it.
Then one night at 10:30pm your dad asks if you’re still up and if he can call you. Your grandma has had a really tough year, in and out of the hospital. And your heart starts pounding because it already knows what your dad is going to say.
She was proper and quirky and practical and stoic and thrifty and particular about a lot of things. And she was a gem. A hidden gem.
I am proud of the ways I am like her, my grandma-isms. And I am grateful that my illness allowed me to get to know her and appreciate her in a way that I wouldn’t have otherwise. And even though I haven’t even been an aunt for six months yet, I’ve already sent my nephew cards for his first Valentine’s Day and first Easter. And I plan to never stop.
I will miss you grandma. I will think of you every time I watch curling and every time we dry our clothes outside on the rack you picked up for us at the end of someone’s driveway 35 years ago. I will remember you whenever I see a cuckoo clock or a singing Christmas tree or an owl anything, and every time I eat a marion berry…which may be never again because I’m not even sure they exist anywhere but your backyard. I will smile every time I go to my sister’s house and see your old dining room table with the five chairs, five not six, because why buy a sixth chair when you’re only a family of five? I will love your doll always.
I love you, grandma. You were a kindred spirit.
Thank you for being my friend.