HelenLast night I dreamt of being in my paternal grandmother’s house.  It was just as she had left it the day I went with her to the hospital.  We didn’t know then that she would never come home, and would instead spend the end of her life in the clutches of Parkinson’s disease, wasting away in a nursing home.

The dream was vivid.  I could smell the mustiness of the closed up house, see the dust rise as I placed my hand on her bedspread, and feel her crumpled pajamas under my feet.  The only difference was that in my dream house there was blood on the floor and the windows were stripped of their blinds.  Her neighbors were all at their windows looking in on me.  My first instinct was to run.  What did it all mean?

I realize now that my grandmother has been on my mind this month because Valentine’s Day was her birthday.  She has further been on my mind because her last surviving son—my uncle—has now been institutionalized due to his ongoing battle with schizophrenia.  In the haze of my dreams and dealing with my uncle I have remembered this woman’s strength.  The dusty house must represent the closed up life she lived for many years—surviving, alone.  The leering eyes of the neighbors were, in all likelihood, my own self-criticism.  Did I do enough for her when she was alive?  The answer is probably not.  The blessing is that I was there for her at the end of her life.

My grandmother grew up dirt poor, the daughter of an alcoholic, physically abusive father.  She was one of many children.  She wanted to go to college—and had a brilliant mind—but instead had to go to work to help out her family during the Great Depression.  She fell in love with a troubled young man, my grandfather, whom she told me refused to let her out of his car unless she agreed to marry him.  Less than the romantic gesture she had dreamed of, she agreed because he seemed like he could provide for her.  She said yes and he let her go for the evening.

When my father, the oldest of two boys, was an infant my grandfather got shipped off to fight in World War II.  My grandmother went to work at a local factory.  She once described to me the grueling hours she put in while raising an infant son—to her it was worth it because she felt exhilarated.  When her husband returned home, she slid into the doldrums of being a 1950s housewife.  She felt unfulfilled and unable to use her mind the way she wanted.  She medicated herself with afternoon cocktails.  She imbibed earlier and earlier until she was drinking in the late morning.  She overindulged until she decided to quit—at age 50.  She once told me that there was a time where she was so wracked with boredom and despair that she put her head in the oven.  Thankfully she did not go through with the plan.  She described her marriage as volatile and alcoholic; she always longed for something more.  Then she suffered loss after loss.

Her youngest son was a genius.  He studied at an Ivy League university—quite an accomplishment for a boy from a family whose prior generations were immigrants and none of them had attended university.  While he was away, his life started to crumble as he descended into schizophrenia.  He was hospitalized, institutionalized, and then landed upstate.  She lost her son.  Lost the dream of who he was, what he could accomplish, and the places he could go.  In some ways, she must have likened it to her own inability to use her own genius.  She was a victim of the times, and her son a victim of genetics.

When she was in her sixties, her husband contracted lung cancer.  A painter, and heavy smoker, he had no chance of recovery and died within a very short time.  Thankfully my father lived close by and helped her out.  But only three years later he was murdered.

And then she was alone.  Hardly anyone called on her, visited her, or thought to bring her groceries.  No one called to ask how she was doing, or just to say hello.  Including me.  At the time, I was so busy struggling to come to grips with my father’s murder—wanting to distance myself from anything related to him—that my grandmother got lost in the shuffle of my life. And for that I still feel guilty.

The blessing is that, by chance, I got accepted to a graduate school very close to where my grandmother lived.  I was so out of it at the time that I did not even realize I had rented an apartment blocks from her house.  Once I discovered this fact, I felt scared to reach out.  I was afraid she would reject me and afraid of the door I was opening to the past.  But I called her and, for the next three years spent as much time as I had really getting to know her.

In my eyes, she was far more than my grandmother.  She was a strong woman and a survivor.  I now cherish the talks we shared at her kitchen table over Entenmann’s cake and coffee; the weekly food shopping trips I made for her where she would always shove $20 in my pocket when I wasn’t looking (she knew I was an impoverished student); and her 80th birthday where I made baked ziti and invited my siblings to join us and we gifted her with a new recliner.  How lucky I was to have her in my life for even that short period of time.

And she was honest.  Brutally honest at times.  I got to ask her the questions no one else wanted to answer about my childhood.  About my mother and father.  About my relationship with her.  As deep as the conversations were, we laughed as much as we cried.  She gifted me with the truth.  She loved me with all of my flaws and she gave me sage advice about my relationship and life choices.

My grandmother was agoraphobic so it was not easy to get her out of the house, except for our trips to the doctor.  I did, however, manage to get her out in her backyard from time to time.  The cool breeze brushed our cheeks as we reminisced about family barbecues and Fourth of July fireworks.  Oh how I grew to love that woman and she grew to love me.  And we told each other.

Then September 11th happened.  Though we were nowhere near the City, the world grew silent.  I went and sat with her.  She was never the same.  Aware that I would be moving into New York City after I graduated, she also became depressed about once again being alone.  Her health declined rapidly.  She passed away soon after I moved to the City.  I remember visiting her in the hospital to say goodbye.  She was no longer conscious and just a shell of the vibrant, sharp woman I had known.  I still miss her.

When I think about my dream, I think about her house.  I think about all of the years she was trapped inside, alone, without her husband or sons.  Yet she continued to live.  She must have had hope.  She certainly had will power like no other.  Perhaps her own brilliant mind kept her occupied.  And then she took the risk of opening up to me only to lose me to the bustle of the big City.  I just hope she knew how much I loved her.


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