True knowledge, love conquers hurt

LRoxanne Sadovsky Like most folks in their upper 80s, my grandparents are beginning to get a little funny. Last Friday, for example, I walked into their one bedroom condo only to find my grandfather pleading with my grandma who was sitting upright in her wheelchair, nodding off mid-sentence with one eye opened and the other one shut tight. Apparently she had taken a tumble earlier in the day and my grandfather, 88, had to drag her, Flintstones-style, back into the bedroom. The chair was as far as he could heave her semi-conscious body, where he propped her with the same delusional enthusiasm that one might replicate over stuffed scarecrows on Halloween.

“Now I can’t wake her up,” my grandpa explained, catching his breath. When we embraced, he had been shaking – vulnerable perhaps, for the first time I had ever seen. But once he took his post on the corner of the bed, it was business as usual; at attention he sat, my grandmother’s caretaker, trying to clarify why gram kept drifting in and out of consciousness, ending thoughts mid-sentence before drifting back into a light chorus of snoring. “Thanks for coming, doll,” he said, obviously relieved to see me.

Later in the day, when the nurse came over and determined my grandmother had overdosed on morphine the night before at the hospital, gram was heavily slurring her speech and saying things that bordered that fine line between genius and madness. “Do we all need our papers to drive?” she asked for no particular reason. And when I sat down beside her with a half gallon of fat-free frozen yogurt and two spoons, she told me I’d better be careful of putting on weight because “they” might stop making it. Of course she kept needing to tell or ask me something “important”; in such moments she’d grasp my hand a little tighter, leaning in closer. “Doll, will you be honest with me?”

“Of course, gram.”

I’d look over at my grandfather, uneasy, who sat on the edge of the bed, ironing the bedspread to perfection with his fingers. I wasn’t up for family truths so close to the weekend. I didn’t want to be the one to have to tell her the situation didn’t look good. My stomach tumbled with relief when her “important” question was only a bluff.

“Tell me honestly: What time is it?”

“One,” I laughed, stretching the striped bendy straw toward her mouth, “in the meantime, drink this.” She slowly widened her lips, caked in the corners with last night’s lipstick.

“Oy,” she said, when I reminded her this was the first time I ever saw her without make-up, “you better write a column about this.”

What? I take requests now? So who died and made me columnist deejay? The barrister of banter? My word.

Truth be told, it is not that common for family and friends to request column topics as though I were the Nye’s of the Daily, but it really is endearing when they do. It doesn’t matter that someone inevitably denies something or argues they have been misquoted. It doesn’t matter that ma can never find the story online anyway. All that is just the small stuff; the caking of old lipstick I can gloss over with my adult brain. With the exception of one very deranged ex who wanted me to promote his quick-fix “thin and rich” scheme, I am happy to talk to or for them in this manner. It’s better than not talking at all.

All right, gram: you asked for it.

In pondering the elder state of my grandparents, several questions come to mind. I am not sure to whom, how or why I want to direct this cry for clarity, yet at times like these, that’s about all I have time to analyze; the simple disclosure will hopefully suffice. That said, I can’t help wonder what the heck is wrong with our ability to care for one another – least of all, family. I can’t help wonder why everything has to end up on Jerry Springer before becoming a “real” problem. Then again, I’ve never done this before; I’ve never had my grandparents slowly die in front of me. Naturally, I’m torn. Part of me wants to throw a tantrum in frustration because the point I want to drive home is simple: Spend time with loved ones before it’s too late. Before they move on, out or go under. Tell them you love them. Hold their hands. Tell them about a time from childhood when you felt proud of them Ö or disappointed. Ask them what their favorite colors are.

Of course, the real world does not exist within 20/20 hindsight. I cannot reflect prematurely on my grandmother’s death and all the consequent things I wish I would have told her or said to her or done with her. In fantasyland, this scenario plays out with harps and hugs and everyone dies happily with a heaven-white fadeout. However, in real life it goes more like this:

“So, gram, would you still love me if I was fat?”

“What kind of question is that? Are you crazy? We just want to make sure you are healthy, that’s all.”

“I understand that now,” I said, easily, spooning indulgent tufts of yogurt into my mouth, “but when I was growing up I got confused. I thought because I was fat that you didn’t love me.”

“Oh, for heaven sakes.”

Not to scale, mind you, but the gist is clear: We cannot right our pain from the past until we know what is true about ourselves in the present. Those who caused us pain in the past cannot be held accountable for the pain we feel now; while they might be responsible for it, they can no more right it than they can change history. That part is up to us. Or, as my smart-ass, but oh-so-wise boyfriend says when I tell him he has to guess what sort of emotional support I need at the moment (because he will live in hell until he figures it out), “I am not going to mind your store.”

Still, even though my grandparents are adorable and graceful in their aging, the belles of the final ball, the conflict remains: How do I help them die? Do I wait until the apologies come? Do I hold out for the right moment to tell them about that traumatic time in the park in Palm Springs during the tennis match? Do I tell them no matter how much they say they love me they still put severe conditions on that love?

Who knows. Maybe I never will. What I do know is getting that “much deserved” apology from them (or anyone else) will not suddenly make me give up drinking. It doesn’t take one night to undo years of mythology. But on the bright side, it’s never too late to start acting as though we are building a new one.

When I first moved here, my grandparents got into the habit of having me over for dinner twice a week. I didn’t know anyone here, and truth be told, I was quite miserable. Over time, I got to know them in a way I could never imagine and vice versa. We told stories, we laughed, we admitted things. “It’s great to get to know you as a person,” grandpa said to me one evening while gram watched “Raymond” in the next room. “We get to know each other as people and not just as icons.”

After all, no one is keeping score. The fact that I now love them as people – truly, deeply, for all their quirks and candor – has nothing to do with how I or anyone else behave or how we choose to say goodbye.

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