Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Deeper than Memories

There are many things in life that are hard to explain. One of them is why our loved ones are with us when they are not really "with us." When I sat down to my computer to write about the meaning of love, I had no idea the story that would unfold before me.  This story actually taught me about love in a way I never could have imagined. I didn't even care if I won this contest because before I even submitted my entry, I had already won.  I won in my heart a new understanding of love and that was enough.

If you are interested in reading further, get comfortable (it is kind of long due to contest rules).  Also, you might want to grab a box of tissues as a few people who have read it said it brought tears to their eyes.

Without further ado, here it is.  My lesson in the meaning and also the power of love.

An Eternal Gift
With wrinkled eyes, silvery gray hair, and a small shrunken frame she was almost unrecognizable. In her world, I was a face without a name.  Was I her niece Diana? Was I her neighbor? Maybe I was her old childhood friend Margie.  None of those was correct. She knew this person standing before her was somebody of great significance in her life. So, she would bounce from name to name attempting to make the right connection. At eighty-six years old, my grandmother was no longer the image of strength and courage I had once known.
Out of all of the people in my life, I had an inexplicable bond with my grandma.  Growing up, I spent weeks with her during the summer.  I cherished every moment spent together.  We’d wake up in the morning and go grocery shopping or run other errands.  Sometimes, she would buy me a toy.  Then, we would return home to watch The Price is Right. Cuddled up next to her in a small space left in a recliner chair, I requested, “Promise me, Grandma, we will go on The Price is Right together when I am old enough.”  “I promise” was her answer.  From one summer to another, I never let her forget about our dream.  By the time I turned eighteen, she was unable to fulfill that promise.  
If she had been well enough to go on the show with me, she would have done it without hesitation.  My grandmother was a constant source of generosity.  When guests came over, she would give up her room to provide them with a nice place to stay.  I could not imagine giving up my master bedroom and sleeping on the sofa for company. Yet, she wouldn’t have had it any other way. When I came to her home, she made sure I could do whatever my heart desired.  This included renovating her entire storage shed into a playhouse.  She covered the walls with pink flowery wallpaper finishing the project with a small bed, television, and air conditioner. If I saw anything I liked in her house, she said, “You can have it.  Take it home.” Giving to others brought joy to her heart. In 1998, she bought a brand new car telling me it would be mine later.  In 2003, she followed through and gave it to me when she quit driving.
Those colorful visions of my fortress of comfort were merely shadows of the past as I visited her in the assisted living facility. Memory began failing my grandmother soon after I started college.  It gradually worsened as dementia took hold of her mind.  Even if she did get my name right occasionally, I knew that she was still desperate to figure out who I really was.  With a heart burning and aching for the person I once knew, I resorted to every effort of reviving her mind. 
A small photo album with pictures of our relatives sat on the bedside table.  Picking it up I pointed to faces of family members.  We would reminisce over who the people in the pictures were.  Sadly, her ability to name her loved ones deteriorated, and the exercise became useless.  My next strategy was to help her say or do anything she could remember. Briefly, I could get her to recite all of the counties of West Virginia—a skill she was proud of her whole life.  Even though it may seem trivial, it was something she remembered.  Thus, I clung to it as the one thing that could connect us. However, this, too, became lost in the abyss of dementia.
Despite the attempts I made of grasping at straws, I still wanted to be with her.  So, our visits consisted of her talking about whatever random things came to her mind and me listening patiently.  There was nothing to be personally gained from it for me, and I wanted so much to have her there with me.  Feeling absolutely desolate that there was nothing truly left of my grandmother, I did something I could not have planned. As if an overwhelming force compelled me, I decided to lie down with her in the small space left in her bed—much like I did as a child in her chair.  With one arm over her, I nuzzled my head on her shoulder.  Looking tenderly into my eyes, she said, “I love you, sweetheart.” For that brief moment, there she was as my grandmother.  A life long past from childhood came flooding back again.  The moment was truly beautiful.
Everything so dear between us had passed away.  I wondered what was the point of having such fond memories if, in the end, that was all they were? She could not be a part of major events in my life such as getting married, obtaining a master’s degree, and expecting my first child.  I tried to share them with her, but she didn’t understand.
  Several questions and thoughts bounced around in my mind. Why should I go out of my way to spend time with somebody who no longer knows who I am? She is not going to remember this visit.  What am I actually doing for her? It feels like I am only hurting myself watching what I once knew disappear before my eyes.  No, a miracle will probably not occur that brings back the grandmother I knew.  She will not understand time I spend with her in the way that I do.

A woman in her twenties with a stable career living independently appears more capable than a woman in her eighties lost in dementia needing help just to get through the day.  If anyone wanted to have a sane conversation, they would not consult her.  Nothing rational about her has remained.  Clearly, I am the stronger one who understands what is actually happening.  Therefore, it is my job to provide what I can for her.  I am the one who knows better now. Yet, while all of these things are true, I discovered that mental and physical strength still fall short in matters of the heart. 
Our moment together revealed a significant truth about love to me.  Love is a continuous reciprocal relationship.  Neither time nor the faculties of the mind can remove it. Whether or not I am remembered, I still feel the need to give the time I have to my grandmother.  Simultaneously, the bond with her is just as strong as it once was when I receive what she wants to give.  Nothing is appealing about lying in her tiny twin bed or taking a half-eaten banana from her.  Still, these are the things that she wants to offer.  When I gladly receive her “gifts” to me, her eyes light up and joy spreads across her face.  Memories cease to carry the weight they normally would because we are both savoring the moment. 
“The heart breaks and breaks and lives by breaking.  It is necessary to go through dark and deeper dark and not to turn,” writes Stanley Kunitz in his poem The Testing Tree. This is how my heart learned the strength of love. Although I cannot recall the first time I discovered the meaning of love, the relationship with my grandmother is the strongest reminder I have of what love truly is.  In order to experience love at the deepest level, heartache is required. No lasting relationship goes without pain or sorrow. Meanwhile, love is the healing ointment that comes from growing through trials together. 
Whether we must swallow our pride and apologize for selfish behavior that hurt another person or say goodbye to someone who stood as a pillar in our lives, overcoming struggles with others develops our hearts.  I could have stopped seeing my beloved grandmother as to avoid the problems I faced with her.  But then I wouldn’t have ever learned what I did.  I had to be with her in times of joy as a child and times of frustration as an adult to experience the full development of love. 
My heart has broken from the loss of someone who filled my life with happiness.  However, while all of the things that I once had with her are gone, the love is still very much alive.  I discovered that it means giving and receiving with her for her happiness—savoring the beauty of the moment.  It is also about carrying on her legacy and pouring the love she gave to me into others.  Love cannot remain with one person.  It strengthens us so that we can encourage others.  In this way, love is kindness that lives forever.

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