Though dementia has taken my grandmother's mind in these later years of her life, I have heard that what is left of her personality are the joyful, kind parts. I don't think she remembers a lot of the difficult stuff she dealt with over the years that hardened her and so in a small way, this illness has been a blessing -- at least for her.
I know it must be very difficult for my mother, my aunt and my uncle (and their respective spouses) to see their mother and know that she does not often recognize them. I know that at times it must be a burden for them to make the trip each week -- or multiple times in a week -- to visit her, not knowing whether she'll even be awake when they arrive in her room at the care center where she will probably remain until God calls her home.
But knowing Grandma over the years, while at times was challenging because of her hardheadedness about some things (I do believe it's genetic, because I know I possess a similar quality), was a blessing on my life because of the courage I know she must have had to live and endure everything she lived through.
Just briefly and including some of the stuff I know and have heard about her life, she was the youngest daughter of four born to her parents in Minnesota. I remember meeting Grandma's sisters when I was a child and while they all had their own unique personalities, they all had a certain sturdiness about them that I can only imagine came from enduring years of Minnesotan winters. Brr. None of them were wimps, for sure.
Grandma's mother struggled with diabetes and was confined to a wheelchair a little while after all four daughters had been born. I imagine that Grandma -- the youngest in the house -- was invaluable as a helper to her mother. What a burden to be put on a child or teenager. That takes courage right there. But there is more.
As a young woman, she left her family to go work in a steno pool in Washington, D.C. I can't remember how long she'd been there when she met my grandfather -- on leave from his ship in the Navy -- and married him just two weeks later. I am still not sure if this was an act of courage or just impulsivity at its finest, but they were married many, many years until his death in 1989. They lived almost their entire married life in California.
They had five children, following the still-birth of their first daughter. This must have tested their marriage in so many ways over the years. Both the loss of the first and the five who survived. I have five; I know how challenging five kids can be.
On top of that, one child struggled with mental illnesses during a time in history when those things weren't really discussed or accepted like they are now. This child passed away a few years ago in a mental healthcare facility where Grandma was her most frequent visitor -- and for a mother to outlive her child? I can hardly imagine what it must have taken for her to pick up the pieces and keep on living.
Another child abandoned the family when she came of age and never looked back. She turned her back on the ones who loved her most. And yet, Grandma, she kept on marching forward. The sadness she must have felt had to be overwhelming at times. My daughter left for a few days and I felt like the worst mom on the planet. Imagine never hearing from her again ... I don't know that I could bear that. I'd have so many questions.
Then, when Grandpa was hospitalized for a year or something after some strokes ... and then eventually passed away? It was Grandma who visited him constantly and carried on after his death, still managing their family home mostly by herself. Some saw her staying there as stubbornness -- the house was far too big for a woman alone (especially as she continued to age) -- but for whatever reason, she ignored their suggestions to get someplace smaller and kept doing everything she could to keep that house alive with memories of the past and warmth of family and friends.
When I talk about Grandma carrying on after all these losses, I want to be clear that I don't mean she merely just survived. She lived!
Grandma was active with her local senior center, she attended church regularly, she performed in community musicals and she traveled. She traveled alone -- flying cross-country to visit family in Minnesota or our family on the East Coast -- into her early 80s.
In truth, Grandma's personality wasn't always compatible with my own and she had a way with words that sometimes offended people deeply -- even family members -- but when we look at the whole package of her life, she was a woman of great courage. She faced a lot of difficulty and yet, she carried on boldly -- living a full life and ultimately, finding her joy in the most surprising ways.
I can only hope to model after her as the years continue -- to live fearlessly and carry on, no matter what hardships may come my way.