Thursday, December 19, 2013

This Shit is About to Get Personal: Ruminations on Love and Loss

When I started this blog several years ago, I was adamant that it would be a place where I would write about actual things that I was interested in, which, if you care to go through the archives, is primarily movies, theater, and junk food (and not necessarily in that order). I wasn't going to be just another jackass on the internet with a personal blog for me to pour my whiny thoughts all over, mostly because I like to believe that my emo teenage years are far behind me (though, honestly, aren't we all perpetual emo teenagers, but with bank accounts and larger sized pants?).

But seeing how this is my blog, which means I can break as many of the rules as I make and only have to answer to myself (and I think I'll cut myself some slack just this once), I'm going to stray from the norm and get a little personal.

The past couple of weeks have been challenging, to say the least. (And while I'm keenly aware that there are plenty of people out there with problems much bigger than my own, I only know how to focus on what I've got going on.) In the space of one week, my grandmother—who I grew up sharing a household with in southern state New York—passed away after many years of illness, and I packed up and moved to Chicago, leaving my family behind in Virginia, marking the first time in my life that I've lived more than a couple hour's drive away from them.

The loss of my grandmother wasn't exactly a surprise. She had emergency quadruple bypass surgery when I was 14 and was never the same since (and I recently turned 34, so that's pretty easy math for anyone to do in order to calculate how long she hadn't been well). During her recovery, her cardiologist gave her a strict diet to adhere to that included lots of fruits, vegetables, and lean proteins, and ultimately eliminated the chocolate, fatty meats, and carbohydrates she was so fond of. She essentially told him to go fuck himself, and continued to eat whatever she wanted.

Her physical therapist gave her a schedule of daily exercises to perform to help her regain strength and keep her newly reconstructed heart healthy—exercises that included tasks like "walk to the mailbox at the end of the driveway" and "lift these one-pound weights when sitting down." She did none of these exercises, instead opting to recline in her lounge chair watching TV all day, and then would blatantly lie to the therapist in her follow-up visits, insisting that she walked on the treadmill we had in the house every day. Anyone who ever visited our house at this time knows that treadmill was used to stack the boxes of snacks she would buy in bulk at Sam's Club (which is like a BJ's or a Costco, for you non-east coasters).

As a result of her refusal to take even the minimal amount of care of herself, the next 20 years were extremely difficult for her and everyone around her (especially my mother, who had become my grandmother's caretaker). Over the years she had several more heart-related episodes that resulted in the installation of not one, but two pacemakers. (Did you know a person could have more than one at a time? It was news to me!) She also eventually developed adult-onset diabetes, had some kidney failure occur, had a hernia, developed a whole host of gastrointestinal issues, and let her muscles atrophy to the point where she couldn't walk without assistance. And as if these physical maladies weren't enough, every time she would go under anesthesia for surgery, she would lose oxygen to her brain, so her memories and logical thinking skills continuously deteriorated to the point where no one knew if she had actual dementia or had just undergone one too many trips under the gas mask.

When I was away at college, my mother rarely called me due to never knowing when I would be available, so we established the Sunday call home where I would reach out to her. But she would call me to notify me of emergency situations, which always revolved around Grandma being in the hospital for any of her many ailments. So I would sit on pins and needles for days, weeks, months, wondering if this time was going to be "the time," only to get a call that she was out of the hospital and doing OK...for now...for her.

The "Sunday call to Mom" tradition carried over into my adult life, as did the "Mom only calls me when something's wrong" tradition, to the point where anytime I saw "Mom" on the caller ID, my stomach would drop and I would prepare to finally hear the words, "Grandma's gone."

My grandmother was never an easy woman to deal with, even when she was relatively healthy during my early childhood years. When asked to describe her, the descriptors most often used are "stubborn," "opinionated," "kind of racist," "often inconsiderate," and "unappreciative." But then there were the parts of her that only those closest would see, like how fiercely loyal she was to her family or how generous she could be with whatever she had to give when someone she loved was in need.

Even when remembering how she was during their childhoods, my mother and aunt (her daughters) recall Grandma being the strict disciplinarian, while Grandpa (their father) was the softie that he continues to be today at 90 years old. But she was still their mother, and my grandmother, so we loved her anyway, prickles and all.

In the spring of 2012, after living in New York City for 8 years and feeling completely burned out, I was ready to move somewhere new. My desire was to go to Seattle, for a variety of reasons I won't bore you with. Apparently my relocation plans sparked something in my family 80 miles upstate. My mother, grandmother, and grandfather were all living in that same house, none of them getting any younger. My mother had been retired from teaching for a couple of years, my grandfather was in pretty decent health despite being in his late 80s, and my grandmother was practically immobile, only occasionally lucid, and a raving bitch to everyone. Obviously distressed by the condition she was in, but unwilling to admit that there was no one to blame for her condition other than herself, she lashed out at my mother and grandfather for their gross incompetence in everything, from cooking dinner, to programming the DVR, to folding the laundry.

At the end of her rapidly fraying rope, my mother decided she could no longer handle being Grandma's primary caretaker or continue living under the same roof as her, and decided to sell the New York house and move them all down to Virginia, where her sister lives. So in a matter of months, the house was sold, my mother had bought herself a new house in a 55+ community, and my grandparents had their own apartment in a senior living complex where my mom and aunt would take turns checking in on them, taking them shopping, and shuttling them to doctor's appointments.

Feeling more upset by this familial upheaval than I cared to admit (because I'm a tough, badass, independent woman who doesn't let silly things like emotions affect her, don'tcha know), I put my cross-country move plans on hold. But still needing to get out of NYC, I compromised and moved to the Washington, DC, area to be close (but not too close) to the family who was all now in Virginia.

In the spring of 2013, after some medical episode that sprung from her refusal to eat, my grandmother was put in a hospice care facility for what we—and the doctors—were sure was finally the end. And of course, just to spite us all, she hung on for 8 more months.

I knew almost immediately after moving to DC that it was not a good fit for me. Unsure if Seattle was still my ultimate destination, I went to visit some friends in Chicago over the summer and decided that was where I should be. Due to a project at work that kept getting pushed back, and then pushed back again, my hopes of moving in the fall turned into the reality of moving in the midst of the holiday season. Not exactly what I wanted to do, but I had to get the hell out of Dodge, so moving plans were made for the weekend after Thanksgiving weekend.

When I got up at 7:00 on the Monday after Thanksgiving to get ready for work, I had a text message from my mother: "Call me when you get up." My stomach did the drop thing again, but this time it wasn't due to the fear of what was wrong with Grandma this time, but the fear that somehow she had outlived my grandfather and the bad news was about him.

I called my mom immediately and she picked up the phone with a choked silence. "Which one of them is it?" I managed to ask. I heard some shuffling as she passed the phone to my aunt, and knowing that she was at my mother's place that early in the morning was not a good sign. "Rach, it's Grandma. She passed away early this morning. We don't really know the details right now, but we'll let you know when we do. We're going to head over to Grandpa's in a little bit to let him know."

I told her I would work from home that day and to please let me know if there was anything I could do for them. And then proceeded to wonder what to do next. How do you grieve the loss of someone you've already grieved for time and time again when she's been coming "this close" to death for 20 years? The woman I remembered as Grandma—who baked Christmas cookies, bought me new ballet slippers every year, and supported my mother and I through the various trials my wretch of a father put us through—ceased to exist ages ago. Was I really sad that this sick, mean, abusive old woman who treated my mother like human garbage was finally gone? Was it OK if I wasn't sad?

Because what I felt more than sadness was relief. Relief that her struggle to hang onto a life that was finished with her years ago was finally over. Relief that my mother no longer had to carry the burden of caretaker or feel guilty about resenting her own mother. Relief that my grandfather no longer had to watch the woman he fell in love with, married, and had a family with fade further and further away. And relief for myself, because now I felt free to move away without the guilt of wondering if I might be needed back home whenever Grandma had her next episode.

Not being religious folks, we had a small family-only memorial for her at the cemetery that Thursday. She was cremated and her ashes were buried there, and a plot was purchased next to hers for my grandfather for when his time comes, which I fear will be sooner than any of us would like. Then, that weekend, movers came and collected my stuff, and I packed my car with the essentials, my two cats, and drove up to my new home in Chicago.

This will be the first Christmas without my grandmother and the first Christmas I will not be with the family since I was a kid and had to split my holiday break between my divorced parents. It wasn't how I planned things (obviously), but it is the way it is, and while it will be difficult, I know it will be alright. They will do the big family gathering that I just can't handle any more for reasons that would take up another 2,000-word blog post, and I will usurp the time-honored Jewish tradition of going out for Chinese food with friends. Hopefully next year I can convince my mother to do a Christmas trip with me. Somewhere warm. Because she sure as hell won't want to leave Virginia for Chicago this time of year!

Being an atheist-leaning person, I don't believe in heaven or hell (though I welcome the opportunity to be proven wrong when the time comes), so I don't take comfort in imagining my grandmother up in the clouds with all her deceased friends and relatives. Heck, if the latter years of her life were taken into consideration, I'm not even sure she would have been let in! But I do take comfort in knowing that a very long, very trying period of time for many people has come to an end. And I hope her final moments were peaceful and pain-free, because she raged against the dying of the light for long enough.

Goodbye, Grandma. You were a massive pain in the ass most of the time. And I loved you.