On Saturday, it was 18 years since my Grandma died.
To be honest, I can’t believe that. Because I was 11 when she died. I remember that. I remember everything about that morning. I remember my dad waking us up, and standing at the back door while my mom cried. I remember coming here- to her house, to my house, and my wonderful father who knew nothing about how to handle children and death put us in the the family room and turned on Cartoon Network. Pink Panther was on. I remember sitting in the kitchen with our priest while horrible things happened in the living room. I remember looking at my mom and Grandpa and wondering what they were going to do now, what the hell any of us were going to do now that she, the biggest personality and responsibility in our lives, was gone.
I don’t like those memories, of course. I’d much rather have happy memories of trips taken together and things she taught me and the sound of her laughter, like the memories I have of my Grandpa. (Even though I bitched and whined through all the trips. Because I was an entitled little brat.)
I don’t have those. Alzheimer’s robbed me of them. I have more, probably, than my brother and sister. I remember what it felt like to cuddle with her, vaguely. I remember how she said my name. I remember how she cried for me when I went to visit her in the hospital once when I was seven or so and I got really upset and then my mom got upset and she loved us so much and was such a good mother that she cried with us while my mom rocked me in the hospital chair. That’s pretty much it for “good” memories.
But what I do have is, I think, far more important. I have an understanding of her, and I have an understanding of the duty of sacrificial love.
First, I know so much about her and her family that I feel like I have all those memories. She was such a wonderful person and raised such wonderful people that I feel like by knowing my mom, by being best friends with my mom, I know her. I know stories about her parents and her brother and her marriage and her kids and her quirks and just everything about her. I know that she was the best mother in the world. I know that she rivaled me for love of buying thing, just ANYTHING. I know that she was so fiercely protective of her family’s name that she was known to do things like fudge the odd birth date because surely something had gone wrong and that really was a 13-lb preemie. (It didn’t happen often. But when it did, Mary Betty was there with her white out. Just get yourself to to confession too. Because the only thing more important than our family name was the Church.)
I know that she would take my mom out of school and go out to lunch with her. I know she loved and ENJOYED my mom and my aunt with a ferocity and depth that frankly I’ve only seen replicated in my mom and sister. (I love my children more than life itself, but when it’s naptime I’m not polishing any mary janes. I’m taking a nap as well.)
I know that she and my Grandpa had an amazing marriage. A true Christian sacramental union that she honored above all else.
Second, I know all this not only because of the stories and the strength of her personality (my sister wrote on Saturday that it was a true testament to her character that not a day goes by that we don’t think or talk about her, even though the last meaningful interaction we had with her was when we were toddlers) but because of how everyone loved and took care of her in the end.
Alzheimer’s is not a pretty disease. It robs you of the person you love and usually turns them into someone who is afraid of and mad at you all the time. In my worst nightmares, I can’t imagine that being the case with my mom or Matt. But it was what my mom and Grandpa had to deal with every single day, for close to a decade. She actually died of Alzheimer’s. Not anything else. They took such good care of her that she died, at home, comfy and warm and as happy as she could be in the circumstances because her brain literally stopped telling her heart to beat. That is virtually unheard of with this disease, and an unbelievable testament to my grandfather’s love.
My sister said something to him years later about how much that meant to us, that he did that for her (and for us) and he just shrugged and said, “Well, I always thought real highly of her.”
He thought so highly of her and their marriage that he gave up everything in his life and watched the woman he loved suffer for ten years because that was his duty as her husband. Both of them gave us an unbelievable gift- watching the sacrifice of the Cross play out in every day life. When I got married thirteen years after she died, I did so knowing that I was making a covenant with this person for life. It was not sunshine and roses but real, gritty, sacrificing love. That has changed the way I look at everything. My parents, my children, my husband, my marriage, the entire world.
And that gift is far more significant than any happy memory I could have had.