Saturday, September 19, 2009

Finding my peace

My grandmother died. Not Nanny, my mother's mother. She suffered from Alzheimer's-related dementia, and she was so, so sick. We weren't close, even before the disease robbed her of her own sense of self.

I always struggled, ever since I was a very little girl, to strike just the right note in our relationship. If I laughed and played, I was too loud. (To be fair, I am frequently too loud for a lot of people.) If I wanted to spend time in my mom's childhood bedroom, reading her old "Vicky Gets Her Wings" books under the small plastic reading lamp adorned with velvet stick'um flowers, I was making a mess. If I was caught trying on my mom's old prom gowns and maybe the cheap rhinestone tiara she got as first runner up in the firemen's carnival beauty pageant, I was "tearing things out." The swingset was too rickety, I was told. But when Amanda and I found an old rope in the garage and made a tree swing, she insisted it be cut down because it looked like a noose.

I eventually resigned myself to quietly reading a Baby-Sitters Club book during our visits, sitting on the davenport in living room, where the TV was always tuned to Jim and Tammy Faye Baker's religious program/televised tax scam. That, or golf, for my uncle. We weren't supposed to change the channels. Reading quietly was also not acceptable, and I was accused of "having a stutz on," which is a Pennsylvania Dutch colloquialism for pouting.

Suffice it to say, visits were... hard. My grandmother never learned to drive due to a combination of a 1950s housewife sense of propriety and perhaps an untreated anxiety disorder. My grandfather would drive her to see us, but they never stayed overnight. She had to get home to her cats, and then her rabbits, and then her parakeets. She never raised rabbits, but she loved the wild rabbits in her backyard so much she couldn't be parted from their company long enough to stay overnight at her adult daughter's home. She named them Scooter and Tiny and swore she could tell them apart. Don't even get me started on the parakeets.

She loved animals though; oh, how she loved them. My mom probably had 20 different cats growing up, her favorite a gray tabby named, um, Tabby. My grandmother allowed one of her cats to give birth in her bed. My grandmother's bed, I mean. She allowed her cat to have a litter of kittens in her own queen-sized bed, is what I'm saying.

My first photo internship was at my grandmother's hometown newspaper. She enjoyed seeing my pictures every day, and saved every copy. She and her lady friends would get together to look through that day's edition, racing to see who could find my photos first. Her next door neighbor Ev got a head start, as she was mostly blind. One day I was shooting in her town, and I had to pee so badly, I wasn't going to make it. I ran in her house, giving a brief knock and making a break for the bathroom. She was caught off guard and completely delighted. That was a good day.

She also cared tirelessly for my grandfather after he "took to bed" in 1999. We had a hard time convincing her that she didn't have to entertain the respite care workers, insisting on being solicitous and serving them her amazing homemade blueberry pie. She took care of my grandfather all through the dementia and decay, with the help of my uncle and a caregiver named Jackie. I'm sure it broke Jackie's heart when the dementia came for my grandmother, too, and she no longer recognized her.

The last time I saw my grandmother was at my wedding, where she was delighted on four separate occasions to realize that- surprise! I was the bride! It made her so happy, each and every time that she broke through with a moment of clarity. Then, at the end of the night, she said, "You haven't said hello to me once." I tried to remind her that I had. I had pinned on her corsage and given her that long-stemmed rose right there during the ceremony, but she didn't remember. It was the disease letting her down, though, not me. For once.

After she died, my mom was going through my grandmother's papers, and she found all the greeting cards I'd sent. It was more than anyone else. I don't know what's saddest: that my grandmother kept them all, that my mom was shocked- pleasantly surprised, but surprised nonetheless- by the evidence of how much effort I put into staying in touch, or that in all those years, all my letters and greeting cards and postcards went unanswered.

I was unable to attend the funeral. I mostly wanted to be there for my mom. My dad and my sister had her covered. I thought I would be okay not going, not saying a formal goodbye. I had unbreakable contractual obligations to clients. And yet, I was bothered in the days after the funeral. In a fog, distracted, sad, frazzled by the house and our impending move, worrying about a friend in another battle with a different diagnosis, and the onslaught of wedding editing and deadlines. I was making mistakes- big ones- and I wasn't okay. It all came to a head last Wednesday, and one of my mentors gave me good advice: Find your peace.

So I asked for a sign.

The next day Joel called. He had found a tiny kitten on the property of our new house. It had been abandoned by its mama cat, who was probably spooked by the landscapers ripping down poison ivy and removing a dead tree. The mama cat probably moved as many babies as it could, and left this little guy and his sibling behind. The sibling had already passed. "This cat is DYING," Joel shouted into the phone. "What should I do?!?" I gave him directions to the nearest vet, and he put the kitten in a bucket, the only way he could transport him (sort of) safely since he was riding his scooter.

In the end, we couldn't keep the kitten. It's just too hard right now with the move and the weddings and travel and everything else. We can't hand-feed a two week old kitten and expect Bella, Fred and Ollie to adjust to a FOURTH animal without peeing all over the new house. We decided to sign him over to the custody of the vet, who promised to nurse him back to health and get him adopted.

"You have to name him," the vet said. Joel thought about their perilous trip with the bucket and named the kitten, a tiny gray tabby, "Scooter." Joel didn't know about the wild rabbit my grandmother cherished and named. He buried the other kitten in our yard today, but for the second time in eight days, I couldn't watch.

My grandmother was stubborn. She worked hard. She loved animals, and she made damn good pie. In a lot of ways, she was just like me. If there is such a thing as Heaven, and if this little gray tabby named Scooter was my sign, then I know that the other little cat, the one we couldn't save, is in excellent hands.


michelle said...

That was beautiful, Angie. And you made me cry. I know how hard this is to digest, but I firmly believe that your grandmother knows how much you loved her, she is not angry at you for not attending her services, and she kept all your cards and letters because she loved you back.

Mom said...

I believe the little gray kitten that looked like my Tabby and the name Joel selected of "Scooter" are your signs. Peace has been found.
Funerals are for the living, and I was, and still am, just fine knowing how much you supported me in spirit at Grandma's funeral on Sept. 11th. You were my peace that day in our phone call. My parents and family were not easy to associate with. But we did our best to honor them despite the difficulties. This AM I had my first positive thought about Grandma. The sunrise looked like a patchwork of colors--pink, light orange, gray, and blue. And I thought, "Grandma's in the Heavens making a quilt of the sky."
It's all good. Truly.

cindy w said...

I'm sorry for your loss. I hope you DO find your peace. Sending you big squishy Internet hugs.

Lesley said...

I'm so sorry, Angie. I hope that we were able to bring you a few happy moments while you were here. You should have said something! Though perhaps you did...that weekend was such a blur I'm lucky if I remember half of it. I hope you're doing okay and that you're feeling peaceful and rested.