November 17, 2011

I’ve been dealing with a number of health problems, none of them deadly but all of them life-altering, since about 1992. There are times when I indulge in pity parties (although I rarely wear a party hat to them; maybe if I did they’d be shorter!). One of my sisters has asked when I’ll be “fixed.” The short answer is never; I just manage, and sometimes it’s easier than others.

A woman I know through an organization, reading her book, and her blog, and the exchange of a few emails, has been living with her artist husband’s brain cancer for at least a year. Although initially they were very hopeful, his life is nearly at an end. She blogs each week about their journey through life, and she somehow always manages to see the positive in what she’s living. I have a deep respect for her; I don’t know if I’d do so well.

My maternal grandmother was a diabetic. She was an adult diabetic; I believe it started when she was about 40. Through the years I knew her, she managed her dis-ease (think about that word) with the help of my grandfather. He would help her check her bloodsugar (no handy bloodsticks then; it was pee and a paper strip), and give her insulin injections. It took me a few years to understand why she didn’t eat some things, and why she did eat others, and why she always had orange juice in her refrigerator (and we had it in ours when she visited). She never complained, at least not in the presence of her grandchildren, and was a wonderful grandma to us all, the best grandma any child could ask for.

When she was about 82 or 83 (my memory isn’t what it used to be), she had a stroke, related to her diabetes. It completely changed her life. She became immobile (though not paralyzed), and lost most of her memory. Her doctor suggested that my grandfather should place her in a nursing home so that she’d have around-the-clock nursing. He refused. He kept her in her home, in surroundings that were somewhat familiar to her, and not at all threatening to her.

He took care of her much as my friend is caring for her husband. He gave her spongebaths, changed her diapers, fed her, and continued her diabetes management. She couldn’t remember his name; she called him “Mister.” He had some home health care assistance, but he did almost everything for her, and continued to sleep beside her so that he’d wake up if she did, and could calm her when she was confused. He made sure that someone from the “beauty shop” came in every week or so to wash and set her still-dark hair.

Over a year or so she slowly faded away until her physical body was gone. My grandfather had, by then, lost most of his friends, and his home was a lonely place. My mother and her sister convinced him to move to Bismarck, where they both lived. He did, but refused to move in with either of them. Ever independent, he rented a small apartment.

I wasn’t living in Bismarck then. I was off somewhere else, Kansas, I think, going to graduate school and living my own life. When he died in his sleep, it was a long trip home to his funeral.

Neither of them were authors or artists. My grandmother taught before she married, and my grandfather held a variety of jobs, the last as the manager of the clinic in their town; he had that job for as long as I can remember — not bad for a man with an eighth-grade education. There is nothing to memorialize them except their gravestones, and the memories of those who knew them.

In my memory, there are car trips with my grandmother, and sometimes both grandparents, to the lake cabin they built in the 1930s (it’s still in the family, and I try to get there each summer). Grandpa always drove; he’d back (fast!) down the dirt road that led from the highway to the cabin so that he could back into the driveway. He drove backwards better than I have ever driven forward. He would tell us stories and take us fishing, and he loved to recite (from memory) the “story” poems by Robert Service. My grandmother taught us the songs from her childhood, and we’d sing them loudly in the car on the way back to Rugby, their hometown.

We always shared Christmas with them; when my sisters and I were young, our mother would pack the whole family into our car and our father would drive us to Rugby. I can vividly remember the thick pine trees they always chose as Christmas trees, the piney scent filling the house. Their tree was usually decorated by the time we got there, but every ornament had a story behind it, and each of us had an ornament with our very own name on it. Awesome when you’re six. I have some of those ornaments, as do both my sisters. I treasure them, although these days I rarely put up a tree. I tried, when I first moved back to Bismarck, but over the years it’s become too much work, and somehow the memories that are so happy as I write this become sad when I see a Christmas tree.

When we were older, they’d drive to our house, and stay with us for Christmas. My grandfather’s turkey dressing (or stuffing, or both) remains the best I’ve ever eaten. Despite having watched him make it so many times, I can’t even make it taste close to what he accomplished. And Grandma’s cookies and Norwegian Yulekage? Words can’t describe them! We inhaled the cookies, and the Yulekaga (a bread with colored fruit in it) was always the first stage of Christmas morning breakfasat. And we’d all sang Christmas carols around a piano, in Rugby or in Bismarck.

There are so many memories that I couldn’t write them all down if I tried. I will say that it was them who instilled in me a desire to garden, and what plants to put in that garden. My mother added to that desire, and although some years my garden looks more like a weed patch (they grow faster than I can pull them! And they grow faster than anything I plant!), I try to keep it in shape. (The bunnies who eat my hostas aren’t helping, either.)

One thing my grandparents did write: Letters. When they were courting, and were almost always apart as my grandfather traveled for a grocery company and my grandmother was teaching, they wrote almost every day. Some of the letters are, well, mundane. Others are true love letters. And those letters provide me, as an adult long after my grandparents have moved on to some other plane, some insight into how their relationship developed, and why so often they communicated by shouting. That they loved each other couldn’t be doubted by anyone who saw them together, or read their letters. But as a child I didn’t understand why they always yelled at each other. I get it now, and I understand my late mother’s frustration when, rather than argue with her, my father would leave the house (usually to golf or bowl), then return a few hours later and act like nothing had happened. And I laugh at myself when I realize my last husband did the same thing, giving me the same frustration my mother felt.

My grandparents didn’t just express their love of each other, or of us, in words. They were a hugging and kissing family, and my mother carried on that tradition as well. I think my father was a little baffled at first, but he gamely tried through his life to get a little more demonstrative. Some people are shocked to realize that we all always kissed on the lips, but that was our way. Hugs are tight and warm, and as a child, made me feel safe and loved.

But I’m digressing a lot. There are a few threads to this post. One is the comparision of my friend’s life right now to what my grandparents went through, although for them it was later in their life. One is my conviction that even if my grandparents left behind them nothing that can be seen, touched, or read (except those letters… there’s a book in there, if only for my family), they still left something of themselves behind, at least to their children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. Another is that perhaps compared to what both couples endured and endure, my own illnesses, and the way my life is now, are pretty inconsequential, although my doctors tell me never to compare — each human being is unique, and all our dis-ease matters. And eventually, we all move on from this life to whatever the next beginning will be.

I wish my friend’s husband an easy transition to that new beginning, and an amazing trip. I wish my friend the strength and courage to celebrate his life and his accomplishments, and the love they shared. I’m pretty sure she already has them. And I wish myself the courage to begin each day with the love from all these people in my heart and in my mind, and to make each day matter, even if it only matters to me.