I saw her for the first time in six years and in that time I became a stranger to her.
Her eyes- so familiar to me in my childhood- still held a sparkle, but it was a different kind of sparkle than the one from our Christmas visits. They seemed to look right through me to the light green wallpaper on the other side of the warm but sterile room.
She smiled, but it wasn't one of recognition. It was habit from a lifetime of unfailing politeness to smile when someone spoke to her- even if she had no idea who that person was.
Veined hands clutched a cup in her lap. Her body no longer restless with energy sat still in the wheelchair. Hair that she used to take great pride in putting into an elaborate up-do was now in one long, gray braid down her back.
"Grandma?" I heard my sister ask as she bent down to touch the still arm.
I stared, unable to speak, as I tried to process the scene in front of me.
My three siblings and I were gathered around the woman who used to make Christmas magical, a simple dinner an occasion, and a kind word a treasure. From Vermont, Wisconsin, and South Carolina, it wasn't often that we could visit the beautiful Kentucky nursing home. But here we all were, desperately clinging to the memories as Grandma sat statue-like in front of us. Because memories were all that were left.
As I stared, swamped with emotions I couldn't explain, I thought about my three small children back home. I thought about the chaos of life right now where there is never enough energy or time in the day to keep up with the tiny people constantly disrupting the universe around me. I thought about my guilt as I try to balance the dozens of daily requirements that I can never finish or even prioritize correctly. I thought about my complaints that I have to get up so frequently in the night to feed the baby, to comfort a little boy who had a nightmare, or to tuck back in a little girl who fell out of her bed. I thought about the meal planning, dishes, and laundry that never seems to end, and I suddenly realized- someday they will all end. Someday perhaps I too will be in a wheelchair, looking at my people without really seeing them, with no response available other than to sit there, blankly stare, and smile out of politeness.
I wondered what she would say to me about this all if she could. I wonder if she has moments where she remembers the craziness of life with small children- and misses the quickly passing phase.
I wondered what advice she would give to me. What secrets she would share as to how she managed to create such a warm, inviting home in spite of the constant demands of life. What promises she would give to me as to the hard work all being worth it.
But she couldn't do any of these things. She simply smiled blankly at us as we began to sing for her- gathered around her in an awkward sort of circle.
I was filled with an ache. An ache of a passed time that I couldn't get back. A childhood where I didn't get close to my grandparents because of distance, but didn't even realize at the time what I was missing. A fount of wisdom in front of me from which I didn't learn. A relationship that I didn't hold tightly to until it slipped silently out of my grasp without me even realizing it was gone.
Somberly leaving her after singing and saying goodbye, we shared breakfast at Cracker-barrel, talking and laughing with the familiarity that only siblings have. I determined to hold fast the relationships I have been given. To make an effort to be there- to show up- to give of myself in this time that I can never get back once it's gone.
To cherish each baby kiss and toddler hug. Fiercely. To find in the good and bad something to appreciate- even if it's only the fact that this day only happens once. To tirelessly give of myself to create a home that will leave strong, positive memories even past those of my children. To always remember that this time ends, and then? Maybe I will be the one in the wheelchair with only memories left to give. And when it's my turn to be there? I don't want to have this ache- sister to regret- cousin to sadness.
Will the frustrations of stubborn toddlers really be such a tragedy then? The lack of sleep be a big deal? The disappearance of a social life due to three cling ons? The difficulty grocery shopping? The lack of "me" time? Will I really care about these troubles when the end of the road greets me?
This weekend for mother's day, I remember my Grandma, who doesn't remember me. I remember my mother and mother-in-law and the other Grandmas in my life. I remember those who have gone before us- creating our lives and mothering without many of the modern conveniences of today. Mothering that is mostly in the past, but no less real- sacrificing their everything so that we could be what we are today. Mothering that showed us how it is to be done. Mothering that proves that these years can be survived- and missed when they are over.
Happy Mother's Day, Grandma. I hope that you know how much you are appreciated and loved. I hope the feeling of being loved is something that never leaves you.