Sunday, November 29, 2015

Love, Light, and Tomato Plants

I missed my Grandma's celebration of life. Well, I should say I was there for 15 minutes, but had to leave because my rambunctious toddler was on the verge of disrupting the service and I couldn't allow that to happen.  I cried all day Friday, agonizing over my stupidity for not lining up a sitter for Presley.  I cried because I needed closure and I missed my chance to celebrate the life of an incredible woman with my family, the people who knew her just as well, if not better, than I did.  I cried because I was overwhelmed with life's obligations and wondering when I'll get the chance to stop, to grieve, to remember, and to let all those feelings rush out of me in a tidal wave of tears and silly stories.

This morning, I'm thinking about my Grandma "Coyote".  About the love and care she showed me growing up, and the things that made her special.  I'm thinking about her voice as she sang along with Jim Reeves and Patsy Cline in the car.  She rarely played music while driving, but when she did, it was one of those two artists, or a tape with a collection of hymns.  Those were the days I felt were a treat because I loved music and loved to hear her sing along.  I don't remember ever being bothered by the silence when she wouldn't turn on the music in the car, though.  I'd just sit back and listen to the sounds of her driving; the click of the blinker, the barely audible swoosh of the tires on the road, and the sound of the brake and gas pedals when she'd move her foot from one to the other.  Those were comforting noises to me growing up. They were the sound of movement without chaos.  Deliberate and steady, but much slower paced than everything else in life seemed to be.

When I think of a life well-lived, hers is the first that comes to mind.  She was no stranger to hard work and sacrifice, and though she wasn't some saint with nary a complaint, she didn't let her struggles hinder her.  She always did what needed to be done, no matter how weary she might be.  There was never an empty belly when Grandma was around, her house was always spotless and organized, and aside from the very end when she moved into the nursing home, she was always tending to plants or a garden of some kind.  In fact, I can't recall a time before the nursing home when she didn't have fresh tomatoes sitting on her counter, ripe and hand-picked from her own plants.  In the best of days, she grew corn, strawberries, squash...any vegetable or fruit your heart desired could be found right there in her garden.  She didn't limit her love of plants to just the outdoors, either.  Inside her house there were always several plants growing healthy and strong.  She usually kept an aloe vera plant, a climbing plant of some sort, and a cactus or succulent.  I also recall many years as a child when she would have a vase on the kitchen table, filled with fresh picked flowers.  She was a natural caregiver; put on this Earth to grow and sustain life in all it's forms.  She most definitely fulfilled God's purpose in that regard.

In the hardest of times, she was my rock.  Grandma Coyote was as stable and predictable as the sunrise and sunset.  When I went long periods of time without seeing her, I'd crave that routine.  Mealtimes, tv shows, was all in perfect rhythm.  I can't hear the theme of Wheel of Fortune or Jeopardy without starting to feel sleepy; anticipating the upcoming bedtime that was part of her nightly routine for as long as I can recall.  If I close my eyes, I can still see her end table with a coaster or folded paper towel fashioned into a coaster, a tall glass of tap water, and the tv listings from the newspaper with the remote control resting on top of it.  Predictable. Reliable. Constant.

In my teens, and again when I first moved back to Oregon from Arkansas, I spent a month or so living with my Grandma Wolf.  I barely recall much of that time, but what I do remember fondly are our walks.  Back then she lived in a 55 & older mobile home park, which provided us a safe place to walk around with minimal traffic.  We'd put on our sneakers and set out on the same path around the park, saying hello to folks who were outside tending their yards.  During those walks, we'd talk about all sorts of things.  Sometimes we'd talk about the day's events, sometimes the news, sometimes we'd wax philosophical about life and love.  She had a lot to say, but she listened just as well.  At times I'd get frustrated that some of what we shared, she shared with others.  I'd say if I had one peeve, it was that she loved to gossip.  On the same token, I can't begrudge her that because I'm the exact same way, more so as I get older.  She never said things to purposely stir up trouble, and when it did, she felt badly about it.  Regardless, I never stopped sharing things with her because I knew she cared and wanted to know about my life.  Sometimes we'd get back from our walks and guzzle large glasses of water, parched from talking so much.  It felt good to have that connection with her.  Having so many other kids and grandkids, she still took time to make me feel important and special; not just one of the crowd.  She managed her large family very well.

In the end, she was so tired and puny. Dementia ravaged her mind, spirit, and body in a very short span of time.  I was grateful the end came just as quickly, so that her suffering wasn't prolonged in any way.  I'll cherish not only the lifetime of memories we shared, but also the last couple of years she was alive.  Though not at her best, I was blessed to spend a lot of time with her, particularly right before she moved into the nursing home.  The family worked out a rotation so that someone was there to visit Grandma twice a day, every day, making sure she ate a meal and took her medication.  My time with her was Saturday and Sunday evening.  I'd arrive and she'd greet me with a hug, a kiss, and a smile, happy for the company.  We'd chat for awhile, usually sitting at her kitchen table, looking out at the rest of the apartment complex.  When the weather was nice, we'd sit outside in her little patio area, watching birds play in the bird bath and greeting neighbors as they walked by.  Though the dementia made it so that she would repeat the same story over and over again, I'd sit and listen as if it were the first time I was hearing her tell it.  I'd respond accordingly and try to veer the conversation off into another direction.  During her more lucid moments, she'd tell me about walking around her apartment and getting lost, not knowing where she was and being terrified.  For someone as independent as her, I knew she hated the loss of control over her life and her mental faculties.  Our time together was precious and never felt like a burden or a chore.  It was simply a chance to visit my beloved Grandma Coyote.

Having lost two Grandmas to dementia and now starting the journey with my Mom, I find myself scared of my own future and what will happen to these memories if I lose them.  I'm an open book with my family and friends, sharing every detail and feeling and thought because I want someone to remember.  I want my memories to fill all the empty space in my world like stars in the night sky, lighting my path through life, and hopefully shedding light on those I love long after I'm gone.  I will never leave a legacy quite as profound as my Grandma Coyote or my Granny Ritz, but I know that whatever obstacles I face in life, I'll meet them head-on with that same stubborn determination, strong character, and boundless love my Grandmas did.  It's the gift they bestowed upon me from the moment I was born and it has kept me afloat through the worst circumstances, through bad decisions and aimless wandering.  In celebration and in sorrow, they'll always be the best part of me, my guiding light, setting the bar higher and higher so that I never get complacent or resign myself to failure.  They've given me something to strive for; the bountiful gift of love, light, and maybe someday,
tomato plants.

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