When I was 19 my grandmother began showing signs of Alzheimer’s, or dementia – I’m not sure we ever got a diagnosis. When I was 21 her sister, my great aunt, called me up and said – no joke – “You’re going to want to fix yourself a Harvey Wallbanger before I tell you this, honey.”
My mother’s sister and her husband, who had lived with my grandmother ever since their Arabian pony and lama farm venture went predictably belly up, had begun to take advantage of her. My great aunts had noticed that as their sister’s mind slipped, Anne and Lance grew more controlling. My grandmother was coerced to write a new will in a narcotic haze that effectively shut my brother and I out of our deceased mother’s half of her estate, and took away most of my mother’s life insurance that my grandmother had set aside for us. All a reversal of her express wishes before the fog set in.
I could tell you about the months and years that followed – how members of my family urged me to speak up for her and take action, but each was too afraid of litigious action to join me (this uncle had a habit of tripping in yards and calling a lawyer). I could tell you about how I noticed my aunt and uncle seemed to be medically abusing her, sedating her during the day while they slept in or ran errands, how they didn’t take her to see her sisters and friends or to visit her church. How they didn’t notice or clean up the plates of food she would hide in her closet. Or how it felt to find the letters I’d written her in her nightstand, with her answers heartbreakingly scrawled in the margins, “yes,” “good,” “I love you too.”
I could tell you plenty about the threats that started when I began to ask my grandmother if she really wanted them to live there, when I involved Elderly Protective Services, when I consulted a lawyer. How my aunt accused me of stealing things every time I came to the house, blowing up my phone for days afterwards with accusations, how my uncle physically threatened me, his body hulking menacingly over mine, the edge of the kitchen counter pressing hard into my back. I could tell you how the last few times I saw her I called the small town sheriff on the drive down to let him know where I was. My grandmother and I were sewing a quilt together then, words having long since failed her, and I would come in the early morning hours, tiptoeing in while my aunt and uncle were still asleep, Nanny and I speaking our own language by making patterns out of brightly colored fabric squares, pins pressed between our lips.
But none of that is what I really want to tell you. The piece that feels important to share is the revelation I had after her death that kept my heart from twisting. My mother’s sister and her husband stole a great deal from my brother and I at the end of our childhood and even more from our grandmother at the end of her life. And I realized I had to decide to not feel resentful or bitter – not because I’m such a big person (I’m not) – but because those are precisely the emotions that probably led them to feel wronged and entitled enough to thieve in the first place. It was a revelation to see that they must have felt stolen from to steal so much.
Don’t get me wrong, I have seethed. I have ranted. I have obsessed. I have imagined awful and satisfying revenge. For years I vacillated between feeling terrified and enraged (which some might argue are the same thing), watching a kind of twisted abuse pervert the notion of family, and aware there was absolutely nothing I could do about it. The most painful was watching them steal from my grandmother a more loving quality of life at the end, and from me the unfettered last few years with a person I loved dearly. I was still a kid, and am ashamed to say, my fear of my aunt and uncle sometimes kept me from making that long, winding drive behind the logging trucks on Highway 84 to see her. In these past 15 years since her death when I feel that magnetic bitter shrinking of the heart, it has been some heavy lifting internal work to reject the equating of injustice with the feeling of being owed. Injustice can be resisted and righted, but “being owed” perpetuates a cycle I want no part of.
The news of our nation this past week has been so bad, so hateful, so lacking in human decency that I had to embark on some serious self-care triage recently. Every hour, I stopped work when the alarm on my phone sounded, and I meditated or did a bit of yoga. Somewhere during these little intervals, the theft of my grandmother’s last years came flooding back, and with it, its relevance today. I feel just as helpless, just as outraged, just as furious and just as scared as I did then. There’s an added layer now, of course, with so many lives at stake.
But, for me, the same revelation applies. I must WORK to not become embittered and resentful against a hatred that builds a wall to shut out Mexicans and shuts the door on Middle Eastern and African Muslims; that calls eight cells a life worth valuing, but not a breathing, bleeding refugee child; that seeks to undermine democratic institutions like free speech, transparent elections and the intelligence community. We are all so overwhelmed and stymied now. We are trying to figure out in which direction to shunt our energy. Every time I open my laptop or turn on the news, I can feel my blood pressure rising as more of who we are as Americans is undermined, more lives are excluded, more is taken away. It would be so easy to allow the feeling of being cheated boil over, in that momentary and deliciously satisfying way of throwing something heavy and precious across the room in an argument – the moment just before it breaks.
I go back to when I was 21. I go back to standing alone and afraid in the face of a destructive force, and the realization that I had in me the same destructive potential if I allowed the obsessive vengeful feelings to metastasize. I think of where I stood then, seeing now that had I made a different decision, my heart might have hardened around the fixation I was robbed, coloring my memories of my grandmother and maybe even paying forward the pain.
I’ve been spending a little time these past couple of days mothering that girl, that 21-year-old who wanted a real grown up to step in and help, who was so ashamed that she was sometimes cowed into staying away, who felt helpless and feared she had failed her grandmother. I’ve told her it’s all right, she needed more help, and that she did so much by calling and writing and visiting. I think it’s been helping my heart now, in a way telling myself it’s all right to feel this crazy mixed bag, it’s all right to get less done and take it slower, and it’s actually important to be BOTH strategic and focused when it comes to the world AND excessively kind when it comes to myself.
I know, for me, I can more effectively resist bigotry and unconstitutionality and chaos and global bullying if I can keep my heart intact, willfully propped open in efforts to be brave without keeping score. Whatever we’ve been denied in our lives: time with someone we love, a manufacturing job, entry into this country, respect for race or religion or gender, our very humanity depends on being able to stand up for what we need to survive and thrive – without turning around and denying the person behind us of the same thing.
I’m thankful to that much younger me with her early 90’s Jennifer Anniston haircut, and I am trying now in these difficult and dark days to keep much of what she learned during that time in front of me. I don’t quite have this yet, friends. But it feels like there is something here.
And I know this: My grandmother’s name was Hazel Elizabeth Strong Cooper, and the memory of her that lives in me when I blacken my fingernails with garden dirt or read with my children nested in my lap is not marred by theft – it is lit up by love.