Marriage is love.

Sunday, July 10, 2005

Tribute to Esther...

My beloved grandmother has been gone since 2001...this is my tribute to her:

Farewell, Grandma Esther…

By Julien A. Sharp


My paternal grandmother, Esther, was a very important person in my life. She was there for me from the first day I was born; she adored me. She loved all of her grandchildren, but there was always a special bond between “Jul” and grandma. It was one of those unspoken facts in our family, but since she showed no obvious favoritism, just the bond, this did not seem to generate any animosity. As I write this, I am trying to understand in my mind the reason for our strong bond, as all my life I had just accepted it as “how it was.” I was the budding musician in the family; my grandmother gave me my first organ and taught me to read music. We both loved game shows, quizzes, and reading – our trips to the library were often the highlight of a visit to her home. She wrote poems worthy of publication, inspiring my continuing love of the written word. We shared a passion for vicarious travel, and the two of us spent hours looking through her extensive Viewmaster® collection, lost in scenes from the Canadian Rockies to U.S. national monuments, from Paris to the Great Wall of China. However, I now realize that our bond was strong for reasons much deeper than our mutual interests.

My grandfather was a functional alcoholic all of his adult life, getting worse after his retirement. His alcoholic binges manifested in verbal abuses directed at his wife and three children. When the children were gone, all of his rages were directed at his wife. Then came the grandchildren – me first, then my sister Amy two years and 10 months later, and finally cousin Jeff seven months after that. Of all the things that could be said about my grandpa Norm, one positive aspect of him the entire family agreed upon was that he loved his grandchildren. He enjoyed having us around, so we stayed overnight often. When we were there, the verbal attacks toward my grandmother lessened measurably; at the very least they became more covert. My grandfather died in 1986 after an extended illness, without much fanfare.

I went away to college for my freshman year, but finished the last two years my B.S. in Business at the Indianapolis campus of Indiana University as the cosmopolitan campus was better suited for my degree and interests. During this time I spent several nights a week at my grandmother’s apartment; she was closer to the campus and only 10 minutes away from the health club where I worked. Even though I was a “grown up” college student, our relationship was closer than ever; we seemed to have a bond that transcended even the social demands of college life! My best friend at the time and I used to spend many evenings “hanging out” with the Pookie (my nickname for my grandmother; all my friends called her by this name as well). My grandmother and I walked often to the little strip mall near her apartment. We shared our favorite novels, as well as a love of popcorn and good TV movies (isn’t that an oxymoron?!).

Things really changed between my grandmother and me, however, when I graduated from I.U. in June of 1989, and left for my first full-time job on a cruise ship in July. The contract was open-ended. I had expected to be gone for six weeks or so, but it was over one year, two continents and four jobs later that I stepped off the ship – and moved directly to Miami! From the time I left for the ship, until moving back to Indiana in November of 1993, I only saw my grandmother (in fact, my whole family) three times. After I returned, things were different: The neighborhood where my grandmother had lived in her beloved apartment for over 17 years became too rough, and my father and aunt moved her to a condominium a few miles north (five minutes from my aunt). This did not go over well with my grandmother, and a side of her that she had kept hidden became to creep out – the complaining side. She and I had lost our closeness – I felt she was angry with me for leaving, and for moving to Miami. I felt like she expected me to visit her often to make up for the four years I was gone. Our special bond seemed like a memory. The strong love was there, but it was not the same.

It is hard to write about this now, but I was only 25 when I returned to Indiana. I soon had a new job in Human Resource Management that required much of my time during the day. I was also acting part-time, appearing in local theatre productions and commercials. I was right in the middle of the “Decade of Me” (more about this later), and I didn’t have time to make up to my grandmother for the years I was gone. Of course I visited her, but not as frequently as she would have liked. While it was certainly not a complete break, it was vastly different than what we had during my childhood and college years. When the next ship job offer came in the summer of 1996, I had had enough of the winters, and Indiana in general, and left the country exactly two weeks from the day I received the call. For the next two and a half years, I visited home no more than a month – if that – in total.

Meanwhile, time began to take its toll on my grandmother. She became increasingly short of breath due to years of smoking. Within a very short span of time, she had a minor heart attack, bladder cancer, and emphysema serious enough to require her to breathe with the help of an oxygen tank 24 hours a day. The shortage of oxygen to her brain had caused some minor damage, and she became more “scattered,” which necessitated the move from her condominium to an independent living facility. Unfortunately, her last coherent thoughts about her darling “Jul” were feelings of abandonment. Even when I did visit her between contracts, she seemed to shut me out. She let others help her – my aunt, my mother, even my sister, but she would not let me do anything at all. She wouldn’t even let me brush her hair (as I used to love to do) when she woke from a nap. After a while I stopped trying. How I wish she could have known that much of my wanderlust came from our journeys through the lenses of the Viewmaster®! How I wish she could have known how difficult it was to phone very often from the schedule confines of a cruise ship! How I wish she could have understood how much I needed to do what I was doing, how validated it made me feel after the angst of my teen years! (…How I wish I would have been a little more thoughtful, tried a little harder to stay connected to the Pookie I adored, the now-lonely, sick little woman who made my childhood special, who made sure every single year we were growing up that the two grandchildren who weren’t celebrating their birthdays each got an “UN-birthday” present, so they would not feel left out when the “birthday boy or girl” got all the gifts!)

In my early thirties, I got a Masters Degree in Family Therapy. This has helped me to understand a little better what I had for three or four years perceived as selfishness on my part, that I “left” home, that I had “abandoned” my family – my grandmother in particular. I now realize that this was a very important part of my own growing-up process. The travels and journeys during my 20’s, what I (only half-jokingly) called the “Decade of Me,” truly helped me better define my sense of self, leading to genuine growth that would have been most likely impossible had I chosen to remain in Indiana. Nonetheless, I began to feel a need to reconnect with my family when I began my 30’s, facing the “adult crisis” of getting my life together.

To this end, I went to Indiana in October of 2001, and stayed with my parents for a much-needed visit. I hadn’t been home in six months, having just gone through a very stressful move from Europe to Miami. For three lovely weeks, I spent precious time with my sister’s children, saw some dear friends, and generally let myself be “cocooned” at home for a bit. I feel very lucky to have had the opportunity to make this journey home, because I was able to bridge a painful and significant cutoff, lasting more than a decade, with one of the most important and beloved figures of my childhood.

By this time, my grandmother had been moved from the Independent Living apartment at her facility, to an Assisted Living single room, to what was to be her final move: the Nursing Care facility, where she had to share a room. The years of medicine and lack of oxygen had severely affected her mind and her body. My mother and sister warned me about her appearance, worried about my shock at seeing her in this condition. I had arrived late on a Thursday; I was planning on visiting her with my parents the following Monday evening. However, I saw her sooner than that.

I was driving by Summer Trace, where my grandmother lived, on Saturday afternoon. I cannot count the days I had driven by her place in the past years, ignoring the little voice inside that said, “Stop by for a quick visit. She would love it. You have some time today,” listening instead to another little voice: “If you do she will just be embarrassed to have you see her like this. She won’t be happy if you stop by for just a quick visit. What can you talk about? She only talks about her ailments to Aunt Donna, Mom and Amy. She has shut you out. Just wait and go see her with Mom and Dad on their usual Tuesday visit.” This time, this Saturday, was different. For reasons I still don’t fully understand, I pulled into the parking lot, turned off the car…and sat. For over 15 minutes I sat, frozen as if in cement, unable to get out of the car, yet unable to start the engine and drive away. To this day I cannot remember a single thought that went through my mind, until the moment when I opened the door, and walked into the building.

The nursing facility was in a different area of the complex, through two very austere hospital doors. Beyond those doors was a very different world than the part of the facility that I had to walk through to get to my grandmother’s area. The main section is the part with the lavish, elegantly appointed reception area, inviting lounges, the dining room with crystal-laid tables, and “Raspberry Harry’s” (a quaint little room that served as ice cream parlor or bar, depending on the time of day). These amenities were enjoyed by the more able of the residents – a group with whom my grandmother fully identified less than a year ago. Beyond the two doors, the smells pervaded from the nursing facility. The smells of illness, incontinence, and age were barely masked by antiseptic. The far more pervasive smells of loneliness, confusion, and despair were masked neither by the efficiency of the nurses and caseworkers, nor by the few visitors, with weak attempts at smiles displayed on faces that masked my own.

I found my way to my grandmother’s room with the help of an aide; thankfully, her roommate was not there when I arrived. I braced myself as the aide pulled away the dividing curtain. My grandmother sat in her wheelchair, facing the window. (“Esther, you have a VISITOR! Your GRANDAUGHTER is here to SEE you! Isn’t that NICE?!”) My grandmother slowly pushed the chair around with her feet, and the breath I had been holding since I stepped out of my car slowly escaped. Yes, she looked very ill and frail indeed, her bird-like body covered in bruises from the steroids she had to take to help her breathing. Was this tiny creature the same Grandma Pookie who had been nearly identical in build to me until she was nearly 70? She seemed not to register at first who was there…perhaps she was expecting my sister Amy, who occasionally drove down with one of her babies for a visit. I walked over to her, and spoke to her. (“Grandma, it’s Jul. JUL.”)

She saw me then, knew me. And, at that moment, I saw her…I saw my Pookie, my partner in imagination, my first music teacher, my vicarious travel partner, my Grandma Esther. Looking into her still-beautiful blue eyes, one month before she passed away, I felt the past 12 years of our separation fading, the hurt and confusion becoming weaker than the whisper of her voice as she asked me to sit down next to her, and brush her hair…