On a Fifty Year Burden

The shrunken, wizened vessel in front of me resembled, more or less, my grandmother. But, as I walked across the Cracker Barrel parking lot on Highway 60 to meet her embrace, my smile obfuscated my dropping heart, as I noted her thinned hair, stooped posture, and stained slacks. This was not the prim and proper woman who made deviled eggs at every family meal, whose green shag carpet supported many a nap of mine, and who hosted me for my first thirty-three Christmases. It was a shadow in comfortable shoes that bore a very strong resemblance.

My 91-year-old grandmother is dying of old age and lung cancer.  Hospice has been contacted, and, after four years of wondering if this was the last time I’d ever see her, I’m resigned to the likelihood that our breakfast several weeks ago may, indeed, be the last time.

After our long embrace, I guided her into the restaurant, never letting her hand go. She was unsteady and weak, but she still had a light in her eye, and I could tell she was happy to see me. My uncle said she was up early that morning, dressed and ready for our breakfast. If I made her day, that makes me happy. She certainly made mine.

Our conversation was not deep and not particularly personal. We talked about family, of course, and our hometown and her memories of the past. I always enjoyed prompting her to talk about the past. She claimed to not remember much, but, in those moments around the dinner table and at that Cracker Barrel table, she was at her most powerful. It was the rare moment she felt like she had something to offer that no one else could. Typically content to sit and listen, in those moments, she opened up, if only a bit. And I loved to hear those stories, to connect with her in at least that way, seeing as though our typical interactions were not overly full of intimacy. Warmth, yes, but not intimacy.

Around the time my grandmother was my age, she lost her husband, my grandfather, in a work accident. She had two teenagers at home, and a small child too, and, in many ways, she never moved on from that day forward. I’m not sure she ever knew true happiness again, even when surrounded by an ever-growing family of grandchildren and great-grandchildren. “Joy” is not a word I associate with her, and the tragedy of the accident seems to have walled her off from much of what life had to offer. That said, she began to work outside the home, volunteered, and enjoyed church social clubs. She had a life, even if it was apparent it was not the one she really wanted.

When she dies, I’m not sure if I’ll mourn more my grandmother or the tragedy that appeared to dull her spirit. It seems a cruel fate to live half a century of regret and resentment over an accident, but, if that was her life the past fifty years, she wouldn’t be the first to find herself locked in a darkness from which she could never fully escape. In art, the lost love is presented as either endlessly romantic or unceasingly embittering. For my grandmother, neither applies, but it was plain to see the loss derailed her in profound, permanent ways. That she carried on as she did is a testament to her strength — a strength that now rapidly fades.

I don’t believe my grandfather is waiting on some ethereal plane to welcome my grandmother with open arms. But I hope she believes that. With all my heart, I hope she believes that. And I want her to go to that, to finally lay down the long burden. If the thought brings her a final, full moment of peace, then who am I to quibble?

I left our breakfast to attend a wedding. I was headed to celebrate the very love that my grandmother has been mourning, in one way or another, for fifty years. I gave her a big hug, helped her in her car, and told her I would see her again soon, but, truth be told, there’s someone else I’d rather her see.

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