Saturday, September 18, 2010

When September Ends

My Granny is never far from my thoughts. Someone with that much impact on another's life could never be easily forgotten. I see a little of her in myself sometimes and when that happens, I feel immense pride that I share DNA with such an extraordinary woman and I'm overwhelmed with gratitude for the time I was able to spend with her. Although thoughts and memories pop up sporadically throughout the year, they tend to start flooding in more toward the end of September. Maybe even a little more so this year b/c the 28th of this month will mark 5 years since she passed away.

The night my Granny passed, I was lying in bed on the verge of sleep when my Aunt called and said, "Mom passed away tonight". All the cliches about how your blood runs cold and the whole world stops when you get news like that are all true. After I got off the phone with her, I called my sister. She was still up at the nursing home and said she wouldn't allow Granny's body to be taken until I could get there to say my final goodbye. I threw on some clothes and went to my car. Just as I turned the key in the ignition, the radio sprang to life and the song that was playing (almost from the first notes) was Green Day's When September Ends. It sent shivers down my back b/c no other song fit that moment quite so perfectly. It was, after all, September 28th, and I could relate completely to sentiment of the lyrics. I drove as quickly as I could to the nursing home and once I got there, I was directed to Granny's room. I walked in and there she was, lying on a gurney. I remember being stricken by how peaceful she looked. Alzheimer's had ravaged her body up to that point and the well-kept woman I had known had become a shell of herself near the end. Her hair was always a mess, her face seemed sad and deep wrinkles had settled around her eyes and mouth. But in death, she was the Granny I knew growing up; the wrinkles were completely gone, leaving her face smooth and serene. My sister had brushed Granny's beautiful salt & pepper mane. My last glimpse of Granny was one I'll never forget. I was lost and sad, but found solace in seeing her as she was before she got sick.

Living in the valley where I grew up, there are daily reminders all around of different memories I made with my Granny. There is Lithia Park, my personal favorite. Granny used to take us kids there all the time. We played on the playground, fed the ducks, walked the trails, and it always ended with a dipped ice cream cone from the shop across the street. These days, the toys on the playground are different, but the overall feel of the park is the same. The ice cream shop is closed, but the building remains. Each time I drive by the Farmer's Market on South Pacific Highway, I have flashbacks of frozen yogurt push-pops, Rice Dream, and the familiar scent of "hippy soap". When I take my daughter to the skating rink, I'm reminded of the days when Granny would take us kids there and how I would hug the carpeted wall all the way around the oval until I eventually learned to wheel around it like a pro. I also remember Granny letting me skate all around her living room, with her as my captive audience. Every time I see a hammock, I'm reminded of the large rope hammock that used to hang between two towering trees in her yard and how I'd lay out there while she was in her room praying; both of us simultaneously seeking God in different ways. When I see a sewing machine, I remember Granny's sewing room. Though we could have done a lot of damage in there, Granny never made it off limits to us kids. There were wooden boards with spools of thread in a myriad of colors up against one wall, a long table with two different sewing machines, fabric in various stages of completion, and sewing patterns galore. I always thought one day I'd learn to sew and we could sit side by side, creating together. Alas, I was not fortunate enough to inherit her talent for sewing, nor the strong desire to try beyond high school Home Economics class. And I can't forget Bear Creek Park; memories of running in the wooden castle-like maze of a play structure until I heard the piercing sound of my Granny's unbelievably loud whistle telling me it's time to leave. And how she'd let us kid roll down the big hill one last time before we had to go.

Just writing about these small things brings me to tears at the amazing memories I shared with my Granny. There are so many moments that I wish she were here b/c I can't imagine anyone else I'd rather share them with. I want to hear her talk and laugh again. (I always thought she had a unique sounding voice. My Dad's voice is the male version of Granny's, 100%.) I want to sit with her and have a conversation like we used to. There was nothing off limits, nor did she ever judge me for my thoughts or feelings. She always listened intently and gave me the best advice. Granny is probably the only person I never felt self-conscious around b/c she fully accepted me and my eccentricities. She made me feel like I was safe and loved. Something everyone should feel, though most of the time I only felt that way when I was with her. In junior high, I was given an assignment in English class where I had to write about my favorite place to be. I wrote my paper about Granny's house. (One I occasionally drive by, although it has long since belonged to someone else.) The giant mailbox out front still says "Ritzinger" on the side. My happiest memories were made in that house. My first few days of life were spent there. When I think about the kind of home I want to create, my ideas are all directly linked to the way I felt in that big, blue house on Hilsinger Road. I know it has less to do with the actual structure and more to do with the inhabitants, but it's a visual reminder of my Granny.

I sometimes worry about my memories fading. I cherish them so much, I would hate to lose them. Not just b/c Granny lost hers to Alzheimer's, but b/c those were the moments that made me who I am. Those are the moments I built my life around and try to emulate as I raise my own child. I admit, Granny's life was rough. She had a nightmarish childhood, an unhealthy and sad marriage, and I've heard that she struggled to be a good parent. But all those things made her strong and wise by the time us grandkids came along. For me, personally, the most priceless gifts were probably born from the hell she endured: her compassion and empathy for my own childhood struggles, her attentiveness to what I had to say, her pride in my accomplishments, and her ability to love me unconditionally. These were the things she gave me. I am honored to be a part of her history and to have her as a part of mine. I find solace in knowing that I told her often how much she meant to me, even when she didn't really know who I was anymore. I'm soothed by the knowledge that when she was sick and needed me most, I was there with her to comfort her as she had done for me so many times. I recall my ex-husband telling me on multiple occasions that visiting her anymore was pointless and that I was just being a martyr. But how could I explain to anyone why I was adamant to have at least one visit per week after she deteriorated to the point where she couldn't even speak? How as soon as I'd walk up and say hello, she would not leave my side? We'd walk around the fenced in yard at first, then we'd walk circles around the main living space of the cottage she lived in once it was not feasible for her to be outside. Always side-by-side. There at the end, she'd spend the entire time sobbing and mumbling and rarely looked up from the ground. But I truly believe she knew I was her visitor.

These are the things that comfort me when I feel sorrow.

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