Better Man

I’ve been thinking about what it means to be an adult.  I used to joke that I became a grown up when I purchased a gravy boat instead of serving the Thanksgiving gravy in an old bowl with a cereal spoon. But there is more to maturity than one dimensional kitchenware.

Getting married, buying a house, having kids- these are some of the standard items on the adult list.  But as I pondered the steps on the road to adulthood, one milestone has been present in my mind in recent moments: realizing I was not the type of person I hoped I would be.

A few years ago, I received a phone call in the middle of the night advising that my sister’s husband had a heart attack.  I was of course concerned, and asked all the important questions.  But when I found out he was stable and death was not an immediate threat, I hung up the phone and went to sleep.  I told myself that he was ok, and I would visit or call in the morning.

The next day, I did talk to my sister on the phone.  She was exhausted, drained physically and emotionally.  She described breaking down in the bathroom in the middle of the night.  I apologized for not coming to the hospital, and she said it was fine.  There was nothing I could have done to help.

I also talked to my brother- the tattooed musician who never wants to grow up.  The one who regales me with stories of his latest childish antics.  I nearly dropped the phone when he told me about going to the hospital the night before.

“Of course I went.  That’s her husband.  Can you imagine if your husband had a heart attack?”

No, I couldn’t.  I comforted myself by telling my inner voice that my brother-in-law was fine.  He made a quick recovery.  But I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was not the person I wanted to be.  As kids, we have this idealistic view of ourselves.  I would rather die than be a self-absorbed asshole who failed to show up when her family needed her.  But I didn’t die.  I had to live with it.  I had done a bad thing, yet I didn’t think I was a bad person.  Maybe good people do bad things.  Maybe no one is truly good.  We’re just these weird conglomerations of experience.

To be fair, I have never been the family cheerleader.  Of course when you grow up in a house of eight people, you are going to spend a lot of time in the presence of others.  But from a young age, I found myself clamoring for solitude.  I would build secret reading nooks in my closet, despite my cozy bed being far more comfortable than a cold, cramped floor.  I lost myself in the stories I wrote, and often played alone in my room.  I think this propensity for solitude kept me at a distance from my family- a distance I sought out even more with age.

I was one of those teenagers who couldn’t wait to grow up.  As soon as I graduated high school, I found a job and an apartment, and left my parents’ home to be on my own.  I thought that’s what being an adult was- paying your own way, living on your own terms. I called home once a month or so.  Had dinner with my family on holidays.  But for the most part, I isolated myself from them, creating a new family out of friends, trustworthy and not.

But life brought me back.  Over the years, I found sometimes solitude can turn to loneliness.  There is peace in being with people who have known you since you came into existence.  Who understand things about you not from your descriptions but from shared memories.

Having my own children didn’t force me to grow up.  But sharing the experience with my family did.  I will never forget my mother flying to my home at a moment’s notice when my son had complications from birth.  I have countless occasions of relying on my in-laws for help in caring for my boys.  Seeing how much my children are loved by their grandparents, and how much they love them in return brings a peace far more lasting than solitude.  I still love to spend time alone, but also understand I want to be a person who values family.

This past weekend, I went to visit my grandmother.  I had many reasons to skip the trip.  She lives in another state.  It is expensive and time consuming to travel.  She has cancer that has entered her brain and is affecting her memory.  She might not know who I was or if I had even been there.

But I went.  I guess just as my boys adore their grandparents, I unquestionably love her.  Even if she didn’t know me, didn’t remember my visit five minutes after I was gone, I wanted to be there and offer support and comfort in any way I could.

She did know me.  She might have mixed up a few of the details.  We weren’t in Indiana.  Her father hadn’t built the building we were in.  But she knew me and was happy I was there.

My mother brought a photo album to show her.  I sat at my grandmother’s knee, and she pointed out the people in the photos, and told me the stories behind the occasion.  She knew each face, relived many memories.  I heard about the barn her father had built, the swimming hole she played in with her siblings, how she grew up wanting to be a cowgirl, a motorcycle rider, and a pilot.  She told me all about her first kiss with my grandfather.

She lives in a nursing home now, where she is well cared for.  She is making friends with the residents, and gets along well with the staff.  I watched the other residents around her.  I swear I could tell which ones had visitors that day just by the light in their eyes.  Their pupils and irises are physically unchanged, but there is an inexplicable light in them.  Visitors are reminders that someone still cares.

My grandma took great pride in showing us around.  At lunch, she kept pestering the server to bring us some ice cream.  We insisted that we were not hungry, but she just kept saying “This is my daughter and my granddaughter.  Can you please bring my girls some ice cream?”

I know caring for her is difficult, and is only going to get more so as her health deteriorates.  She tires so easily.  We sat outside and ate a muffin, she had a pedicure, and then I pushed her in her wheelchair for a walk around the neighborhood.  Those simple tasks that would normally be considered relaxing exhausted her.

My mother helped her lay down for a nap.  My mom has trouble hearing, and I don’t think she heard my grandmother speak.  But as my mom hugged her goodbye, my grandma said “I know I can be ornery sometimes, but thank you for everything you do for me.”

I fought back tears, because I was leaving to fly home.  It might be the last time I ever saw her.  But most of all, I was grateful I made the trip.

I may not be a grown up yet.  Maybe I’ll never become one.  But at least I’m learning from my mistakes sometimes and letting them guide my future decisions.  I may become a good person yet.

Love you Grandma.

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