Some things will never change. Some things will always be the same. Lean down your ear upon the earth and listen.
---Thomas Wolfe, You Can't Go Home Again
March 4, 2015
She sat, a pale and fragile 73, in the recliner, cannula snaking out of her nose down to the oxygen canister that pumped life-sustaining air into her body. Mere days out of the hospital following a cardiac episode for which the hospital attending physicians and the VA docs couldn't agree upon a diagnosis, she broke my heart as I searched for signs of the spirited woman I grew up knowing as Grandma.
Heart attack, said the doctors at the hospital, who'd tended to her from the ambulance to admission.
Transient Ischemic Attack, or a series of mini-strokes, said the VA doctor who read all the records of her admitting symptoms and saw her for follow-up.
Whatever had happened, it wasn't clear if she was out of the woods yet or if she would make it there. So Mom and I had thrown a rush trip together to see her, the details of getting there ended up being dramatic enough for a Lifetime TV movie. That's a story in its own right. Most of it was told on Facebook, but the details - man, you can't make that stuff up. But we'd made it.
We entered Grandma's house - not the home I'd grown up with her living in, she'd moved to the Tri-Cities sometime in the late 90s after Mom had moved us to Colorado - and were met with a haze of thick cigarette smoke. I saw her sitting there, thinner than I'd ever seen her, hair stark white, and pallid skin devoid of color. Had she not brown eyes, she could have passed as an albino. This was not the chain-smoking, dirty-joking spunky ole broad who always had her hair setting and nails painted of my youth.
I'd known to expect that - she had been in a declining state at my sister's wedding 6 years earlier. I'd known that her mobility was severely impaired, and it followed that, of course, she would have atrophied further.
For some reason, I guess I had some kind of fairy tale thinking that once we were in Washington again, that she would be herself in her own place. The head and the heart don't always work so well together, ya know?
We greeted each other, shyly and yet also with the hungry emotions that accompany a brush with mortality - fear of losing time to say the Important Things, repressed love that has burst out of compartments of the heart that were wrapped in ambivalence, and the weighty dawning of reality that time is coming to a close.
My uncle was there. David and I had been close when I was little, before he went to jail at age 16 and the arc of his life changed dramatically. He had taught me how to play chess as a pre-schooler and we played often. After he'd been in lock-up, he came back hardened, older, and had his own family to tend to not long upon re-entry to the world. Always a smartass, he played people with his wit, often in a game of hurt or be hurt. And sometimes the stings went deep. But, damn if he didn't love his people with a ferocity I've not seen matched by anyone else in my life. I always could count on him when it came down to it.
He made some snide comment to Mom about her weight and his face beckoned her to bring it.
He damn near killed me when he turned to me and the first words asked of me in oh some 20 years were, "So, you still play chess?"
I told him no, but quickly built rapport by good naturedly throwing my Mom under the bus. Casting a [mock] baleful glance at my mother, I retorted, "Somebody moved me 1,200 miles away from my chess teacher 20something years ago. I seem to have forgotten how to play." My eyes may have leaked as I reflected on how he deliberately chose something of meaning to say to me, instead of some crass attempt to bruise with humor. He came and hugged me strongly. I felt a tear or two land on my shoulder, and my fissured heart cracked a little wider.
It hadn't been as long since I'd seen my aunt or my cousin, but still over a decade, so we embraced each other and worked to overcome the disjointed intimacy of being close family relatives who are practically strangers, having to merge who we were now with who we remembered each other to be so long ago.
Upon making ourselves comfortable, Grandma struggled to light herself a new cigarette.
Mom got up sharply and removed the cannula, saying, "I wish you wouldn't smoke with that on - it's so dangerous!"
Grandma shot her a black humored look over the top of her glasses, chin cocked downward and seemed to be bolstering for a fight.
There's a glimpse of that ole broad, I thought to myself, as a half-grin emerged on my face. Here we go!
"Mom, I'm not going to tell you to quit smoking - just don't do it with the oxygen, ok? I know that quitting isn't going to undo the damage that has been done and it is a comfort to you as a stress relief. I'm not interested in making you give that up when everything else is going to crap. I want you to be happy, so I'm not going to fight about the cigarettes."
What happened next haunts me, and drives me to making others feel like they matter, in the work I do, in the faith I walk, and especially with the people I love.
Grandma rolled her eyes, pursed her lips, and looked around at all her medicine bottles, tubes, the walker she was forced to never be without, and said, "Tara, I'm not happy." Unspoken, she said, I'm old and my body is failing. My family is not Rockwellian or even similar to the Roseanne Barr show. I have regrets. A lot of regrets. And I'm sorry, but there sure as shit ain't nothing I can do about it now.
Later that week, we were sitting around and Uncle David tossed out some memories for Mom.
"Hey, remember that time Howard beat the shit out of mom, and we......" I don't even remember the story that followed - I was stuck on how nonchalant he was about what should have been a terrifying event. But it had been an all-too-common, normal even, piece of their childhood.
They reminisced about it, laughing that protective chuckle that covers gut-wrenching pain from the past.
Oh, Lord, does it grieve you as it does me?
How many times had she been beaten in front of them?
How many times had her children been beaten in front of her and she felt helpless to do anything about it?
How much shame and self-loathing did she still carry for allowing it, and other unspeakable abuses that occurred, to go on as long as it did?
How many times and in what ways had she been victimized as a child?
Had she ever felt loved unconditionally?
That her life had purpose and meaning somewhere beyond all the abuses, lies, betrayals, and failures?
Does she know You love her - no matter what - and that she is precious?
Has she ever felt her worth as You created her to be, not to be used and manipulated by men?
She sat, a pale and fragile 73, in the recliner, cannula snaking out of her nose down to the oxygen canister that pumped life-sustaining air into her body. The hardness of her life had finally caught up with her, trapping her in the shell of a declining body and the double-edged sword of a still-sharp mind. The erosion of her spirit began long ago, long before my time, I'm sure. Over the years, the constant pressure had to have depleted her in an ongoing manner, but because people saw her day to day, the changes weren't that noticeable. I sat there, looking at her in awe and sadness, able to see the canyon-like caverns in her joy, her spunk, and her energy. Life had been wearing away at her all this time, and only now with the passage of a lot of time had the erosion become noticeable.
My career has centered around poverty alleviation and human services programs that act as safety nets and/or create greater self-sufficiency. A lot of the work in recent years has shifted toward generational poverty. And this is well and good, as Scripture tells us we must address material needs of the poor in James 2:
But this poverty in spirit, this brokenness without hope for the future that I see in so many members of my family, the participants served by my employer, can be generational, too. And that also must be addressed.
May we be kind. May we be intentional. May we be seekers of those in need of love, and be prepared to give love to them when we find them. May we forgive things long past us.
I cannot bear the thought of people going to their deaths with such despair, self-loathing and loneliness.
In the past year, I have spoken more with my grandma, aunt, uncle and cousin than I probably have combined in the last 10 years, particularly this spring.
Grandma kept asking me if we would be able to come out for the family reunion this summer, and I was hesitant.
We're busy. It is expensive. My family is colorful and very complicated. My kids are pretty sheltered. Etc.
But I couldn't quit hearing and seeing her defeat.
"Tara, I'm not happy."
So I started re-evaluating our budget, and an epic road trip was born.
The kids and I are going to embark upon a 10-day 3,000+ mile road trip to the PNW starting July 30th.
We've got a full itinerary and the excitement is building.
The kids have never been west of Vernal, UT, nor north of southern Wyoming, have never seen the ocean, are total history buffs, and are about to get a healthy dose of family roots, for better or for worse.
There will be a lot of feels, since I haven't been back to Kelso, my hometown, since 1999, and the house that built me is still around. We will drive by the old neighborhood for sure.
We told Grandma a couple of weeks ago, and she called me (a rarity!) Sunday to talk more about it.
And I heard her say, "I can't hardly wait."
We can't either, Grandma. It's gonna be great.