The last three weeks – the first three weeks at my new job – have gone pretty well overall. I’ve genuinely enjoyed myself as I have started to learn my new responsibilities; I’ve gone to several training seminars on grant writing in downtown NYC, posted my first few web articles on the organization’s website and sent out my first email newsletter. I’ve had fun getting to know my co-workers, and seeing as how I feel pretty satisfied with where I’ve landed, I’ve already begun nesting. My office is decorated with photos from my wedding, black and white snapshots of my grandparents and the obligatory Audrey Hepburn calendar. I’ve also stocked up on Jolly Ranchers, Home-style Popcorn and about ten different kinds of tea. I’m prepared for the afternoons when the munchies hit or my blood sugar starts to dip at three o’clock: I’ve even got chocolate covered pretzels stashed in my desk drawer.
Here I am, ready to become an expert on grant writing, public relations and marketing via social media. I’m excited to get started on the research that will help us write grants, reel in volunteers and set up a more targeted and effective (not to mention stylish) Facebook page. And I feel good about the fact that is all be for a worthy cause. But some mornings – just after I’ve put on my mascara, of course – and sometimes while I’m driving home on the New York State Thruway, I start to sob.
I’m not crying because of my job – I’m crying because my grandparents would be so proud and excited about my job and I can’t share it with them.
One of the great things about these conversations was that she was fully convinced that I had teacher super-powers. This is probably why I get grand, over-blown ideas about what I can accomplish, in fact – because of her unfailing belief in my ability to save the day. Even when I would get discouraged about the progress that one of my students was making (or not making), she would tell me, “You just keep working with her. She’ll come around in time, since you’re giving her extra attention.” Of course, my grandmother was no expert on learning disabilities or education – but she believed that I knew enough to do my job even better than the average teacher. And she loved that I was helping people.
But last March, my grandpa’s prostate cancer had finally spread to his bones and what had been a manageable condition now kept him confined to bed and in incredible pain. Radiation treatment didn’t really help – but it tired him out and made him even more miserable. And going back and forth every day to visit her husband in the hospital and then the nursing home, my grandma grew weaker and more confused. Her dementia, which had been progressing fairly slowly, grew worse because of all the stress.
Grandpa passed away last May, and Grandma followed five months later in October. I think she just decided it was time to go – her husband and all her oldest, closest friends were gone, she was losing the ability to take care of herself or even think clearly and despite all our best efforts, it was difficult for us to spend enough time with her. She needed constant care, and one of my family members could only be at the nursing home with her for a few hours each day. (I cannot express how much I hate that I live five hundred miles away from my family and could not be there with her.)
My grandparents have always been a huge part of my life; they babysat me at least three or four times a week when I was growing up. We went to the mall, out to dinner, to playgrounds and amusement parks and concerts...
Then they drove an hour out to Ypsilanti every week to visit me while I was in college. My grandma has always been one of my best friends – she was my favorite shopping partner, bought me my first mini-skirt, and even picked out my husband. I always let her take credit for that one – she was so proud of deciding that Jeremy was the one for me. “Don’t let him get away,” she told me, and I could only reply, “I’ll try not to… but there’s only so much that I can do.” Even so, she taught me a few tricks that apparently worked, because here I am married to the man of her selection.
So in 2010, I lost two of the people who have been the most influential in shaping who I am: the things that I believe and the ways that I understand the world, the ways that I act and the things that I treasure. They have always been a part of me because I have absorbed everything that they taught me, everything that they were and are, so completely into my own identity. I was in love with all the details that they could tell me about their courtship (see photograph); I wrote it all down in a book during college. I was always asking them questions about the Great Depression and World War II; my husband, my brother and I all liked to hear my grandpa’s army stories. From the time that I was young, they taught me to be a responsible, caring person – mostly through their own examples.
I could go on and on about how they were incredible role models for hours, but the main point is that they were amazing people who generously gave of themselves, serving their community and loving their family and friends with open, over-flowing hearts. So I know that my grandparents would be incredibly proud of what I am doing now; they would be first of all excited that I had earned a job based on my skills as a writer, and they would be thrilled to see me using my skills to help other people.
I can picture them – my grandfather would look like he was going to bust all the buttons on his shirt, with his giant grin breaking through his usually reserved nature. My grandma would be practically bouncing around, even at 90 years old. And she would be glowing. That’s really the only word that describes the way that she used to look when she would attend a performance, award ceremony or graduation for us while we were growing up. Glowing. Like one of those Day-glo Glow-Worms from the 80s. Beaming with pleasure that her offspring had accomplished what she, with her limited education, could not. People keep telling me that they would be proud of me, as though I need to be reassured – but I know better than anyone what they would be saying to me every day if they were alive right now.
My grandparents are a part of me, perhaps as no other people are a part of me. But now that they have died, what that means is that this grief is also a part of me. Sometimes it’s a dull ache, like the beginning of a cramp that you know will get worse even if you pop a couple of IBu Profen. Sometimes the grief is sharp and fast, as though I’ve sliced open my palm; it throbs and then grows numb. Sometimes it’s strangely combined with joy – tender grief and this delight bubbling up inside me that I believe I can sense what they would be saying and doing.
I think that grief is now an integral part of who I am as well, and so sometimes, when I am driving home from work, I think about what I would tell my grandma – I bought this green vase to put on the bookshelf in my office, and I brought in a blue glass candle holder that catches the light and refracts it all over the office. She would want to know how I was decorating the place. I wore a black and white striped collared shirt today, and a sparkly gray scarf. She would want to know what I was wearing. I think I need to get a darker shade of lipstick to match my dark winter clothing. She would offer to buy me a new tube of lip gloss at Clinique.
In these moments, I let the waves of grief wash over me as I'm driving home from work – and I realize that I don’t ever want to stop having these conversations with my grandma, even if they are really conversations with myself. This grief is a part of me now, a part of my identity just as much as everything that my grandparents taught me. And it may be painful, but I want the grief to remain part of my identity – because the alternative is forgetting everything about them that was so beautiful, and I’m just not willing to do that.