Today would have been my grandma's 87th birthday. Gardenia buds all over the east coast, tight in their glossy green cocoons, tell that it's that time of year again. Soon they'll blossom, and fill the south with fragrance unmatched, and she won't be there to watch them bloom or inhale their sweetness- not this year, not for the eighth year.
Illness and disease have a cruel way of stealing, not only a loved one's life, but also the memories you have of them, replacing them with blank stares, bewildered frustration, and pain. This March 7th, I cling to the memories that I knew before and to the ones that fought their way through the disease.
My grandma knew how to use her eyes for speech like none other. She had this look, this squinty, "I see what you're doing" look that many would borrow, but only she could truly deliver. She also had the warmest, most joyful smile that made me feel delighted in. Her embrace- that long one in the kitchen arm chair by the bay window, and that perfect touch, most enduring back tickle, lying on her lap on the living room couch, made me feel safe, known, and generously loved.
I always looked forward to birthday dates, knowing that I would get alone time with her, and a meal at Friendly's with a sugary drink and an ice cream sundae that vaguely resembled a clown. She took me shopping every week before Easter and let me pick out a new dress, and shoes, and cardigan, and stockings, and even sometimes a hat.
She was a wonderful cook and always worked hard to serve us delicious meals. She taught me to put a teaspoon of sugar in the corn water, before adding the corn, and a little pinch in nearly everything else.
My grandma spent countless hours watching me swim, do "gymnastics dives," race, perform, dance, present, recite, and sing. She taught me how to weed a flower bed without pulling out the flowers and to never tell my big brother if I spotted a snake in the garden. She "hired" me to clean her house so that I could earn my own way to summer camp.
She held me when I skinned my knee or ached from yet another ear infection.
She was a constant presence in my life- one of faithfulness and love.
I remember her warm chest, feeling her heart beat softly in my ear as I watched the light dance on her gold and diamond pendant. That diamond hung from the most delicate chain, yet, to my knowledge, never broke through 19 grandchildren.
Parkinson's, Lewy body dementia- whatever she had was long and slow, cruel and ugly. But she was still in there.
My grandma had already endured several years of this frustrating illness. She rode in the passenger seat of her own car as I drove her to the hospital. She was on her way to sit with and hold the hand of the man who had stood by her side for 50 years- the one who'd been caring for her through her own debilitating disease. She knew what was happening and couldn't speak her mind. She watched as pain consumed him. The nurse inside of her could do nothing, trapped inside of her own rebelling body.
I drove her through the windy roads that summer day to the hospital in my grandpa's last days of life. I fought my own tears back, trying to be strong for her, but I was hurting too. We came to a railroad track and the car in front of me stopped sooner than I was ready for. I crashed into his car and dented his bumper.
The man jumped out of his car with fiery eyes, took one look at my puffy eighteen year old face and bloodshot eyes and told me not to worry. He stepped back into his car, closed the door, and drove away. Stunned, I sat down again next to my grandma, terrified that she would tell my grandpa that I'd just crashed his car. She looked at me calmly, grabbed my hand, and held it tight. She spoke clearly, like I hadn't heard in a while, "He doesn't ever need to know."
Even in her worst pain, in the most challenging days of her life, she was looking out for me. I'll never forget that day.
I write these words for my own remembering, but also for my family- my sons and nephews who never knew her, my husband, cousins, and siblings who only remember the end, and for all of my family that have these and a million more memories to look back on.
I'll always remember my grandma as the woman who was an advocate for others, pulled people close, ignored bloodlines, and called loved ones family. She gave of herself and loved well, and I'll always remember her- her love for people, her faith in Jesus, and her conviction and dedication to inclusion and sacrificial love.
Today, I'm thankful for her life and I hope that I'll grow into realizing her prayers for me.