lessons in love

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As Katie and I sat with my beautiful 94 year-old grandma today, we did our best to follow her as she traveled in and out of lucidity. But even in the moments in which she seemed to have lost the thread of the present, she was still so wonderfully, gloriously fundamentally, well, herself.

She handed me something, though her hands were empty, and asked me to open it for her. “I’m having trouble with the package,” she said. I want to make sure Katie gets a cookie.” I protested, but Katie, knowing how much joy her great grandma takes in feeding those she loves, said, “Hey! Don’t say no! I want a cookie.” Grandma smiled as she closed her eyes and took Katie’s hand in hers. Just before nodding off again she said, “That’s my girl; everyone needs a cookie.”

There are no small moments. There are no small acts of love.

#WeLoveYouGrandma

{Image is a photo of my and Katie’s hands in Grandma’s, taken during our visit today by Luau.}

Diary’s Facebook page, Saturday night

My grandmother kept her eyes closed through most of our visit. The first time I saw them, I gasped. “There are those beautiful eyes!” I said. They were quickly closed again. When she had the energy, she said, “I just can’t keep them open. It’s too hard .. ”

“Grandma,” I said, “then keep them closed. We didn’t come here to make you work. We came to love you. That’s all.”

“You’re making me cry,” she said, raising a trembling hand to wipe her cheek.

“Oh, Grandma,” I said, kissing her temple. “I’m so sorry.”

“No,” she said quietly. “They’re happy tears.”

I laughed. “See, Katie,” I said, “I come by it honestly. We’re a family of leaky eyes.”

Her eyes closed, Grandma smiled.

After 94 years, Time has begun to exact a heavy toll on my grandmother. After fighting valiantly for years, it seems that she’s taken down her guard and given herself permission to lean into its steep demands. She is at once claiming control and ceding it. Or, perhaps better said, she is claiming it by ceding it. Her conscientious surrender, as it were, is in some ways as beautiful as it is heartbreaking to watch.

On Saturday, we spent most of the day just being. Luau and Brooke wandered the grounds of the extended care facility and Katie and Grandma and I, well, we just were. We lived inside the space where Grandma was. We followed her as she meandered in and out of sleep and on a journey of words no longer tethered to the present tense. We held her and we rubbed her back. We told her we were there. Katie ran around the halls in search of the various things that we were able to determine that Grandma needed. A pillow, an aide to help her shift in her chair, juice. And then we simply were.

Talking to my dad yesterday, I told him how proud I’d been of Katie. How hard it had been for her and yet, how beautifully present she managed to be. How her love became what her Oomah needed it to be in the moment.

And I told him that I was grateful. Grateful for Grandma and grateful for time and grateful for his example of how to love. And so too, grateful for the life that I’ve led that helped me to see so much more than I might have. Grateful for knowing that communication happens in myriad ways of which speaking is merely (and not the most effective) one. Grateful for learning to listen slowly rather than pantomiming interest while planning a response. Grateful for seeing the value and connection and beauty in holding space with another human being without the need for validation of that connection in words. Grateful for practice in advocating for the ones we love – recognizing the moments in which they are unable to do so for themselves and then directing those in power to their voices, helping them to express their needs. Grateful for recognizing the folly of forcing conformity over comfort or insisting that others do what would make us comfortable if we were them rather than seeking to understand what works for them. Grateful for being taught how to show love through patience and presence and touch.

Throughout the day, it became apparent that seeing my grandmother’s eyes was a prized currency. A validation to those around her that she was present, fighting, I suppose. At lunch, as I fed her bite by bite, it was clear that the dining room was overwhelming. Grandma hissed “Shhhh!” in the direction of any noise. She refused the food, saying instead, “It’s good, the girls will have it.”

In the midst of the hubbub, a sweet young nurse across the table from us chirped encouragingly, “C’mon, June, show us those beautiful blue eyes. I so love seeing your gorgeous eyes.”

I smiled at her as I dropped the spoon and reached for Grandma’s hand. “She said that it’s exhausting to keep them open,” I said. “I promised her that no one’s going to make her work. She can do whatever makes her comfortable.”

As we left, another resident stopped us on the way out the door and asked if Grandma had opened her eyes for us, as though that would tell her if the visit had been a success. When I told her that she had, her face lit up. And then I told her what I’d told the nurse. “But she said it was too much to keep them open. And we told her that we didn’t come see her so that she could work at playing hostess. We came here to love her.”

I thought of Brooke. Of society’s insistence that she make eye contact to show others that she’s listening, when, if in fact they listened, they’d see that her eyes are not her ears and that the former actually tend to be more likely to be engaged when the same is not simultaneously demanded of the latter. Of the people who have said those words to her, “I just want to see your beautiful eyes” and the selfishness that they don’t recognize as so inherent in that sentence. Of our need for validation of our actions, of others’ presence and connection. Of the incredible relief that comes with the release of our fundamental insecurity when it’s replaced by the presumption of our loved ones competence and understanding, in their own way, of what’s happening around them, whether they are able to conventionally convey it or not. Of the sacred beauty of holding space with another human being without demand.

These are the lessons that my parenting has taught me.

They are not lessons in autism.

They are lessons in love.

And I am grateful.

We love you, Grandma. Rest your eyes. 

10 thoughts on “lessons in love

  1. You’ve been blessed having your wonderful Grandma all these years. You’ve had a wonderful and special relationship with her, as have Katie and Brooke. I know how painful this is for you and the girls.

    The analogy between Grandma’s eyes and people trying to force Brooke to look at them is an accurate one.

    Love you,
    Mom

  2. wow! You hit the nail squarely on the head! I have learned many lessons from you, but I think the most important one is to use all our senses to “hear” what the other person is telling us even if it’s not the way we expect it.

  3. I, too, had a wonderful relationship with my gram and miss her.

    More and more I am getting testy about people promoting eye contact. Humph.

  4. This reminds me so much of my own mother’s last months . The phantom package to open – the waiting taxi – the cluster of people on stage with my own daughter the “star” such a vivid imagination played out piece by piece as she put her world in order so she could leave, at one point she got really worried about who would take over for her at running the family. Not to worry mom we all have been trained by the best!
    Thankyou for bringing these memories back for me Jess – mom passed away a year ago this past march first! I miss her so!

  5. Your observation and response is so profound and your words are incredibly moving. Thank you for once again enabling me to see things in a different and more respectful way. X

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